Colorful Life-Form Catalog May Help Us Find Alien Microbes

Monday, 30 March 2015 - 12:16PM
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Monday, 30 March 2015 - 12:16PM
Colorful Life-Form Catalog May Help Us Find Alien Microbes
Astrobiologists are often tasked with studying life on Earth in order to find similar signatures of life on other planets. Now, a new study from Cornell University catalogs 137 different microbial organisms found on Earth, including those from extreme environments, and may allow researchers to find and identify alien life forms using only a telescope.

The database catalogs different Earth-bound life forms along with their spectra, or the way in which they reflect sunlight. Since each organism has a specific and unique spectra, astronomers may be able to use a planet's "tint" in order to detect and identify life forms.

"This database gives us the first glimpse at what diverse worlds out there could look like. We looked at a broad set of life forms, including some from the most extreme parts of Earth," co-author Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomy professor at Cornell University, said in a statement.

Colorful Life Form Catalog May Help Us Find Alien MIcrobes

[Credit: NASA/Cornell University]


The scientists focused on organisms in extreme environments because they are more likely to resemble the conditions on alien planets. Earth's spectra is green as a result of the prevalence of vegetation, but other planets may be dominated by types of life forms that are found in very small numbers on Earth. "On Earth these are just niche environments, but on other worlds, these life forms might just have the right make to dominate, and now we have a database to know how we could spot that," said Kaltenegger.

Colorful Life Form Catalog May Help Us Find Alien MIcrobes

[Credit: NASA/Cornell University]


The main issue inherent to this study, and all studies that use life on Earth as a guideline for finding alien life, is the fact that we have no idea whether alien microbes would resemble Earth microbes in any way. Harvard astronomer Mercedes López-Morales expressed excitement about the project, stating that the catalog is "exactly what we need," but also qualified that "the main unknown is what to look for. We have no idea what the spectra on other Earth-like planets are going to look like."

But that being said, the study is a huge step forward towards detecting alien life, or at least more easily identifying alien life forms that we may find in the future. "Our results show the amazing diversity of life that one can detect remotely on exoplanets," said co-author Siddharth Hegde. "We explore for the first time the reflection signatures of a diversity of pigmented microorganisms isolated from various environments on Earth – including extreme ones – which will provide a more broad guide, based on Earth life, for the search for surface features of extraterrestrial life."

Via Space.com.
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