Astrobiology October 2007, 7(5): 801-814
A central question in astrobiology is whether life exists elsewhere in the universe. If so, is it related to Earth life? Technologies exist that enable identification of DNA- or RNA-based microbial life directly from environmental samples here on Earth. Such technologies could, in principle, be applied to the search for life elsewhere; indeed, efforts are underway to initiate such a search. However, surveying for nucleic acid–based life on other planets, if attempted, must be carried out with caution, owing to the risk of contamination by Earth-based life. Here we argue that the null hypothesis must be that any DNA discovered and sequenced from samples taken elsewhere in the universe are Earth-based contaminants. Experience from studies of low-biomass ancient DNA demonstrates that some results, by their very nature, will not enable complete rejection of the null hypothesis. In terms of eliminating contamination as an explanation of the data, there may be value in identification of sequences that lie outside the known diversity of the three domains of life. We therefore have examined whether a fourth domain could be readily identified from environmental DNA sequence data alone. We concluded that, even on Earth, this would be far from trivial, and we illustrate this point by way of examples drawn from the literature. Overall, our conclusions do not bode well for planned PCR-based surveys for life on Mars, and we argue that other independent biosignatures will be essential in corroborating any claims for the presence of life based on nucleic acid sequences.