Soon after our work began with graphene sheets and the ability to adsorb biomolecules, we began to wonder whether there would be a means of no just adsorbing the species, but identifying key factors about target analytes of interest without have to resort to complicated platforms such as mass spectrometry. While immunoassays provide high sensitivity to many target species, they must be constructed with some prior knowledge of the target. Such is likely not to be the case for alien organic molecules, although some basic assumptions can be made. As indicated by Dr. Willis at JPL, amino acids are a good start for the search for life. Consequently we wanted to find additional ways in which graphene could assist the search for life in alien oceans. One possibility may be using graphene nanopores to attract, sequence, and retain organic molecules of interest. Nanopore based analysis is currently an area of great interest in many disciplines with the potential for incredibly versatile applications. These include sensing small molecules such as ions, nucleotides, enantiomers, and drugs, as well as larger polymers such as PEG, RNA, DNA, amino acids, and polypeptides. Single pore sensing is a label-free single molecule recognition approach requiring very low sample volumes without sample preparations or amplifications. The detection of organic molecules using graphene in several ways is therefore a versatile method for a number of NASA life detection missions.
Our work over the past 5 years developing a novel means of capturing and concentrating organic molecules onto specialized graphene surfaces, under DARPA support for medical diagnostics. There is substantial market potential for new graphene technologies that can help quantify the presence and concentration of biomolecules for the healthcare industry.