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Published Online: 2 March 2020

The Limits, Capabilities, and Potential for Life Detection with MinION Sequencing in a Paleochannel Mars Analog

Publication: Astrobiology
Volume 20, Issue Number 3


No instrument capable of direct life detection has been included on a mission payload to Mars since NASA's Viking missions in the 1970s. This prevents us from discovering whether life is or ever was present on Mars. DNA is an ideal target biosignature since it is unambiguous, nonspecific, and readily detectable with nanopore sequencing. Here, we present a proof-of-concept utilization of the Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) MinION sequencer for direct life detection and show how it can complement results from established space mission instruments. We used nanopore sequencing data from the MinION to detect and characterize the microbial life in a set of paleochannels near Hanksville, UT, with supporting data from X-ray diffraction, reflectance spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and Life Detector Chip (LDChip) microarray immunoassay analyses. These paleochannels are analogs to martian sinuous ridges. The MinION-generated metagenomes reveal a rich microbial community dominated by bacteria and containing radioresistant, psychrophilic, and halophilic taxa. With spectral data and LDChip immunoassays, these metagenomes were linked to the surrounding Mars analog environment and potential metabolisms (e.g., methane production and perchlorate reduction). This shows a high degree of synergy between these techniques for detecting and characterizing biosignatures. We also resolved a prospective lower limit of ∼0.001 ng of DNA required for successful sequencing. This work represents the first determination of the MinION's DNA detection limits beyond ONT recommendations and the first whole metagenome analysis of a sinuous ridge analog.

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Published In

cover image Astrobiology
Volume 20Issue Number 3March 2020
Pages: 375 - 393
PubMed: 31976742


Published online: 2 March 2020
Published in print: March 2020
Published ahead of print: 23 January 2020
Accepted: 24 November 2019
Received: 1 October 2018


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Catherine Maggiori
Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, McGill University, Quebec, Canada.
Jessica Stromberg
CSIRO Mineral Resources Flagship, Kensington, Australia.
Yolanda Blanco
Department of Molecular Evolution, Centro de Astrobiología (INTA-CSIC), Madrid, Spain.
Jacqueline Goordial
Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, McGill University, Quebec, Canada.
Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, East Boothbay, Maine.
Edward Cloutis
Department of Geography, Faculty of Science, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Canada.
Miriam García-Villadangos
Department of Molecular Evolution, Centro de Astrobiología (INTA-CSIC), Madrid, Spain.
Victor Parro
Department of Molecular Evolution, Centro de Astrobiología (INTA-CSIC), Madrid, Spain.
Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, McGill University, Quebec, Canada.


Address correspondence to: Lyle Whyte, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, McGill University, 21111 Lakeshore Road, Macdonald Stewart Building, Room MS3-053, Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec H9X 3V9, Canada [email protected]

Author Disclosure Statement

No competing financial interests exist.

Funding Information

This work was funded by the Canadian Space Agency Flights and Fieldwork for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST) and Mars Sample Return (MSR) grants, the McGill Space Institute graduate student fellowship and postdoctoral fellowship, and the Spanish Ministry of Science project no. ESP2015-69540-R (MINECO/FEDER).

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