When exploring the solar system or interstellar space, some scientists look for signs that we might not be the only life in the universe. They might look for radio signals or evidence of organic chemistry familiar here on Earth.
But what if the signals or chemistry of alien life are completely unfamiliar to us? How would we recognize them?
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Scientists at the Swiss research center, EPFL, think a clue could come from movement. They've created a tiny device that detects nanoscale vibrations that occur inside microscopic beings.
The ultra-sensitive motion sensor uses technology already developed for atomic-force microscopes designed to create images of incredibly small structures. The microscope works because it has a tiny, cantilevered tip that's moved over the contours of a given surface. As the tip moves, a laser simultaneously measures the ups and downs and turns that information into a digital image.
Just like the microscope, the nano sensor has a cantilevered tip and a laser.
In tests, the scientists were able to detect vibrations from bacteria, yeast and mouse and human cells, even when the organisms were mixed with soil and water.
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Ideally, such an instrument would be installed on a rover sent to explore the surface of a moon or planet.
The researchers, Giovanni Dietler, Sandor Kasas and Giovanni Longo, published their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.