Yongda Li - Searching for Life on Mars

Yongda Li is searching for life signatures on Mars through his doctoral research in DCU’s School of Biotechnology. He hopes that one day, his simple, low cost and effective tests will be deployed on a mission to Mars. In this piece, he describes how support from the Orla Benson Memorial Scholarship is helping to advance this research.

“Growing up in Sichuan province in China, I always had an interest in biology and a general scientific curiosity. I chose to specialise in science in high school, and set on a path to study a BEng in Bioengineering in Heilongjiang University. I completed my undergraduate dissertation on the detection of the antioxidant activity of the essential oil from the root of Paeonia ludlowii, which is an endemic medicinal plant in China.

As a young scholar, I wanted to continue my research abroad, and after finishing my undergraduate studies, I initially wanted to specialise in something of relevance to the pharmaceutical sector. The reputation of Ireland as an ideal place to study pharmaceutical courses led me to pursue the MSc in Bioprocess Engineering in DCU.

I arrived in Ireland in 2017 to begin the course. It was exciting to start postgraduate study in a new country, but also challenging for me initially due to the language barrier. At first, I found it hard to understand conversations and my lecturers. I was fine reading English, therefore I just had to put the additional effort into reading notes after lectures to catch up. It took a few months to get over the initial language barrier, but since then I have really enjoyed living in Ireland, and have experienced how friendly and welcoming people are here. I have also made good friends from my course and labs.

When the time came for me to identify the topic of my MSc dissertation, from the list of potential projects, I spotted one focusing on the “Development of biochemical methods for the detection of markers and inhibitors of life for planetary missions”. I knew this was the one for me as I had worked on antioxidants for my undergraduate dissertation but mostly because it got me outside of my comfort zone, to the interesting planetary applications of redox biology and chemistry.

Using a Martian soil simulant available from NASA, I worked on the detection of life inhibiting peroxidants. At the end of my Master’s, I successfully applied for a grant from the Irish Research Council to expand this project further as doctoral research focussing on the development of methods to identify a wider range of biomarkers including proteins, DNA, microbes and lipids. I am now in the third year of my PhD and I have successfully developed methods to quantify proteins, microbes and DNA under conditions that simulate the Martian atmosphere and the effect of UV radiation.


“While my biochemical methods can detect the presence of a number of life signals, there is a lot more that I need to understand about how protein, for example, breaks down in conditions similar to those on Mars.”


To gain this understanding, for my experiments I need access to mass spectrometry and chromatography equipment that is not available in DCU. My supervisor has excellent connections and collaborations with institutions abroad, and specifically with Greek universities and the groups of Dr Georgios Theodoridis in Aristotle University Thessaloniki and Dr Konstantinos Aliferis in the Agricultural University of Athens, who can provide training and access to this equipment. In addition, my supervisor has an ongoing collaboration with the Helmholtz Institute for Environmental Research. Thanks to the Orla Benson Memorial Scholarship, I will be able to spend a month in the aforementioned labs this June, where I will receive training in mass spectrometry, chromatographies and bioinformatics, and I will be able to analyse my samples. In addition, this scholarship will also support me to attend the European Astrobiology Network Association annual conference in September where I aim to present my research findings.


“I am so grateful for this scholarship and the support which will allow me to advance my research in ways that would otherwise have been impossible.”


As a young researcher, networking with pioneers in my field and improving my communication skills through research visits and conferences is vital for my career progression. Ultimately, I aspire to take this project further with a post-doctoral research fellowship that will focus on developing analytical platforms to deploy these tests on future Mars missions.

I truly believe that this research can make a significant contribution to planetary exploration in the future, as current approaches for the detection of life signatures are costly and require highly specialised, automated analytical platforms that carry a high risk of mechanical or instrument failure. My new biochemical assays will be not only cheaper and simpler, but also more sensitive, with an advantage to detect a wider range of markers of past life, precursors to life and also life-inhibiting molecules in soil samples.”



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