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Bada, JL, Sephton MA, Ehrenfreund P, Mathies RA, Skelley AM, Grunthaner FJ, Zent AP, Quinn RC, Josset JL, Robert F, Botta O, Glavin DP.  2005.  New strategies to detect life on Mars. Astronomy & Geophysics. 46:26-27. AbstractWebsite

The quest to determine whether life existed, or still exists, on Mars continues with several missions planned for the red planet by both the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the next few decades. One instrument designed for these missions is the Mars Organic Detector (MOD), which uses a new approach to achieve exceptionally high detection sensitivities and analysis capabilities for key bio-organic compounds. MOD is scheduled to fly in the ESA ExoMars mission early next decade and will attempt to answer the question of whether we are alone in the solar system. Here the MOD team explains why we have reason to be optimistic about uncovering the organic secrets of Mars.

Glavin, DP, Cleaves HJ, Schubert M, Aubrey A, Bada JL.  2004.  New method for estimating bacterial cell abundances in natural samples by use of sublimation. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 70:5923-5928.   10.1128/aem.70.10.5923-5928.2004   AbstractWebsite

We have developed a new method based on the sublimation of adenine from Escherichia coli to estimate bacterial cell counts in natural samples. To demonstrate this technique, several types of natural samples, including beach sand, seawater, deep-sea sediment, and two soil samples from the Atacama Desert, were heated to a temperature of 500degreesC for several seconds under reduced pressure. The sublimate was collected on a cold finger, and the amount of adenine released from the samples was then determined by high-performance liquid chromatography with UV absorbance detection. Based on the total amount of adenine recovered from DNA and RNA in these samples, we estimated bacterial cell counts ranging from similar to10(5) to 10(9) E. coli cell equivalents per gram. For most of these samples, the sublimation-based cell counts were in agreement with total bacterial counts obtained by traditional DA-PI (4,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole) staining.

Bada, JL.  2013.  New insights into prebiotic chemistry from Stanley Miller's spark discharge experiments. Chem Soc Rev. 42:2186-96.   10.1039/c3cs35433d   Abstract

1953 was a banner year for biological chemistry: The double helix structure of DNA was published by Watson and Crick, Sanger's group announced the first amino acid sequence of a protein (insulin) and the synthesis of key biomolecules using simulated primordial Earth conditions has demonstrated by Miller. Miller's studies in particular transformed the study of the origin of life into a respectable field of inquiry and established the basis of prebiotic chemistry, a field of research that investigates how the components of life as we know it can be formed in a variety of cosmogeochemical environments. In this review, I cover the continued advances in prebiotic syntheses that Miller's pioneering work has inspired. The main focus is on recent state-of-the-art analyses carried out on archived samples of Miller's original experiments, some of which had never before been analyzed, discovered in his laboratory material just before his death in May 2007. One experiment utilized a reducing gas mixture and an apparatus configuration (referred to here as the "volcanic" apparatus) that could represent a water-rich volcanic eruption accompanied by lightning. Another included H(2)S as a component of the reducing gas mixture. Compared to the limited number of amino acids Miller identified, these new analyses have found that over 40 different amino acids and amines were synthesized, demonstrating the potential robust formation of important biologic compounds under possible cosmogeochemical conditions. These experiments are suggested to simulate long-lived volcanic island arc systems, an environment that could have provided a stable environment for some of the processes thought to be involved in chemical evolution and the origin of life. Some of the alternatives to the Miller-based prebiotic synthesis and the "primordial soup" paradigm are evaluated in the context of their relevance under plausible planetary conditions.

Schwarz, C, Debruyne R, Kuch M, McNally E, Schwarcz H, Aubrey AD, Bada J, Poinar H.  2009.  New insights from old bones: DNA preservation and degradation in permafrost preserved mammoth remains. Nucleic Acids Research. 37:3215-3229.   10.1093/nar/gkp159   AbstractWebsite

Despite being plagued by heavily degraded DNA in palaeontological remains, most studies addressing the state of DNA degradation have been limited to types of damage which do not pose a hindrance to Taq polymerase during PCR. Application of serial qPCR to the two fractions obtained during extraction (demineralization and protein digest) from six permafrost mammoth bones and one partially degraded modern elephant bone has enabled further insight into the changes which endogenous DNA is subjected to during diagenesis. We show here that both fractions exhibit individual qualities in terms of the prevailing type of DNA (i.e. mitochondrial versus nuclear DNA) as well as the extent of damage, and in addition observed a highly variable ratio of mitochondrial to nuclear DNA among the six mammoth samples. While there is evidence suggesting that mitochondrial DNA is better preserved than nuclear DNA in ancient permafrost samples, we find the initial DNA concentration in the bone tissue to be as relevant for the total accessible mitochondrial DNA as the extent of DNA degradation post-mortem. We also evaluate the general applicability of indirect measures of preservation such as amino-acid racemization, bone crystallinity index and thermal age to these exceptionally well-preserved samples.