Scientists debate signatures of alien life

As Domagal-Goldman, then a researcher at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), well knew, the gold standard in biosignature gases is oxygen. Not only is oxygen produced in abundance by Earth’s flora — and thus, possibly, other planets’ — but 50 years of conventional wisdom held that it could not be produced at detectable levels by geology or photochemistry alone, making it a forgery-proof signature of life. Oxygen filled the sky on Domagal-Goldman’s simulated world, however, not as a result of biological activity there, but because extreme solar radiation was stripping oxygen atoms off carbon dioxide molecules in the air faster than they could recombine. This biosignature could be forged after all.

The search for biosignature gases around faraway exoplanets “is an inherently messy problem,” said Victoria Meadows, an Australian powerhouse who heads VPL. In the years since Domagal-Goldman’s discovery, Meadows has charged her team of 75 with identifying the major “oxygen false positives” that can arise on exoplanets, as well as ways to distinguish these false alarms from true oxygenic signs of biological activity. Meadows still thinks oxygen is the best biosignature gas. But, she said, “if I’m going to look for this, I want to make sure that when I see it, I know what I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, Sara Seager, a dogged hunter of “twin Earths” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is widely credited with inventing the spectral technique for analyzing exoplanet atmospheres, is pushing research on biosignature gases in a different direction. Seager acknowledges that oxygen is promising, but she urges the astrobiology community to be less terra-centric in its view of how alien life might operate — to think beyond Earth’s geochemistry and the particular air we breathe. “My view is that we do not want to leave a single stone unturned; we need to consider everything,” she said.