Life on Mars? Scientists Examine Mushrooms and Methane

Ryan Lau | @RyanLau71R

For decades, the idea of life on Mars has had its place in pop culture. With many references in The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who and a David Bowie song named such, the people of Earth have a clear fascination with what may reside above. Until now, much of this has been in the context of pure fiction. But this week, scientists are closely analyzing two key happenings that may prove the existence of life on the Red Planet.

Foreign Fungi

Recently, a group of scientists at a lesser-known journal published a research paper that examined the possibilities of life on Mars. It largely entails pictures of mushrooms and other fungi that have possibly accumulated on the surface of the planet.

Dr. Regina Dass, a microbiologist and coauthor of the study, spoke out in regards to its veracity. She declared:

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.

Dass also mentioned that NASA took pictures of 15 new objects coming up from beneath the surface in just three days.

Moreover, the study claimed evidence of algae on the surface of a Mars rover itself. Over the span of 95 days, the Opportunity rover appeared to capture the growth of bacteria on its own surface. Though the authors conceded that wind could have also left a dust mark, they hypothesized that strong winds would be more likely to take a mark away than to leave one. Thus, the odds of life on Mars increases.

Possible algae on the Observer rover. Source: NASA
Possible algae on the Opportunity rover. Source: NASA

The paper has received some criticism for its lack of definitive proof. According to Science Alert, it was peer-reviewed, but three of the reviewers rejected it. In the end, the paper still received majority support. The study, however, admits in the abstract that all evidence is “circumstantial and unverified”. In the end, they assert that the possibility of life on Mars is still an open question.

Does Methane Gas Imply Life on Mars?

Concurrently, another team of scientists has been investigating the presence of methane gas on Mars. A Nature Geoscience paper released Monday confirmed the presence of the gas above the planet’s Gale Crater. This recording by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer came just one day after the Curiosity rover measured a methane spike on the planet’s surface.

Methane gas may have two causes: geological or biological. If the latter is true, then the evidence is strong for life. The gas breaks down within a few hundred years, which means that the source of it must have been fairly recent. It could potentially point to a particular type of organism: methanogens. These microbes release methane gas into the atmosphere as a waste product. No scientists have confirmed the presence of methanogens or any other living creatures thus far.

If the methane gas is geological, though, it does not necessarily mean that there is no life on Mars. In order to create methane, heat and liquid water must both be present. So, wherever the methane is, if scientists determine that it is geological, it may still be a good place to start looking for living organisms.

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