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Researchers believe they may have found life currently living on Mars

In a paper published in the Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews, researchers believe they may have found evidence of life currently living on Mars.

The researchers believe that fungi-like ‘growths’ found on Mars indicate that there is microbial life currently in existence. These were observed in pictures taken by the Opportunity Rover (may it #RIP in peace). The left panoramic camera captured the image below on Sol 37 (Oppy’s 37th Martian day), showing lobes that may be lichen growing on Mars.

Another shot of what they believe is life currently living on Mars:

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And here is an image the team provided that was taken on Sol 257:

The researchers compared these to Earth-bound lichen as seen below:

The paper’s co-author, Dr. Regina Dass of the Department of Microbiology, School of Life Sciences, India, said: “There are no geological or other abiogenic forces on Earth which can produce sedimentary structures, by the hundreds, which have mushroom shapes, stems, stalks, and shed what looks like spores on the surrounding surface.

She added: “In fact, fifteen specimens were photographed by NASA growing out of the ground in just three days.”

Adding to the evidence supporting that microbial life still exists on Mars is the fact that there are measurable differences in the amount of methane in the atmosphere based on the season. Basically, what this means is that in springtime and summer on Mars, there’s more methane than there is in the fall/winter months. And as the authors explain:

On Earth, 90% of methane is produced biologically by living and decaying organisms (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017; U.S. Department of Energy, 2017) and released as a waste product by prokaryotes (Bruhn et al. 2012; Kepler et al. 2006) and certain species of fungi (Lenhart et al. 2012; Liu et al 2015; Mukhin & Voronin, 2007). Terrestrial atmospheric methane levels also vary with the seasons and are directly attributed to biological activity.

It’s kind of like the planet “breathing”, exhaling methane when things warm up and (what could be) life wakes up. And when it gets cold in the fall/winter, life ‘goes to sleep’ or is otherwise less active, resulting in lower methane – according to this hypothesis.

But while tabloid sites like Express are quick to report this as fact, the actual findings in the paper are just a big shrug. And there are also other confusing aspects to the paper.

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I got very excited when I first saw this headline. Then I tried to find the paper, which Express didn’t link to (a red flag, if being published by Express isn’t itself enough of a red flag). It’s pretty inconclusive. After all, the authors say:

Admittedly, abiogenic factors can’t be ruled out. Conversely, at present, there is no microscopic evidence depicting cells or intra-cellular structure and thus no definitive proof of Martian life.  Moreover, although organisms can survive in space or in simulated Mars-like environments, there is no proof they can flourish on Mars. It is also very difficult to distinguish, with a high level of confidence, between what may be living organisms vs sedimentary structures. Similarities in morphology are not proof. In many respects the observations presented here could be described as circumstantial and do not rise to the level of “extraordinary evidence” thus precluding “extraordinary claims.” Although, collectively, the evidence, in total, weighs in favor of biology, we can only conclude that the question of life on Mars remains unanswered.

It’s also possible that these could be inorganic in nature:

It is possible these latter specimens are hematite and what appears to be “growth” is due to a strong wind which uncovered these specimens–an explanation which cannot account for before and after photos of what appears to be masses of fungi growing atop and within the Mars rovers. Terrestrial hematite is in part fashioned and cemented together by prokaryotes and fungi, and thus Martian hematite may also be evidence of biology.

So in reality, this is more of a ‘punt’ than anything. It’s an admission that they don’t really know what they are, but it’s possible it could be life, but it’s also possible that it’s not. It’s also possible they could have been hitchhikers from Earth, or even traveled to Mars from Earth via debris from an asteroid impact.

I sent this article to a friend of mine who happens to have a PhD in astronomy (she asked to not be identified by name, but I promise she’s super awesome and knows her stuff). She found it odd that the paper was published in the manner that it was – it looks like a glorified blog post more than a research paper – and that if the findings were truly as dramatic as advertised, they would have gone to a bigger journal (like Nature). There are also 14 referees (Nature/Science only have 3 at the most). Her conclusion was “hey it’s really hard to distinguish these small rocky things from small mushroomy things.” (And, as that is a direct quote from her, that makes it science!)

She also pointed out that the conspiracy website “Coast to Coast AM” reported on the story as well.

On their homepage, they sandwiched the article in between a story about a Chupacabra killing a second person in Honduras and a promo for “UFO Mega Con” occurring right now in Laughlin, Nevada.

So, you know, take that for what it’s worth.

Read the full paper in the Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews.

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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