April 2, 2023

Is That a Fossil on Mars? Non-Biological Deposits can Mimic Organic Structures

Scientists know of lots of natural procedures that can create organic-looking structures. And there are likely numerous more that have not been discovered. Some of the tiny structures are extremely beguiling and have actually fooled scientists before.
In a brand-new article, a set of researchers lay out some of the issues with false fossils in the look for genuine tiny fossils on Mars. The article is titled “False Biosignatures on Mars: Anticipating Ambiguity.” Its published in the Journal of the Geological Society.
No article about false signs of life on Mars would be complete without mentioning the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite that was discovered in Antarctica in 1984. That Martian meteorite is older– about four billion years of ages– which is when scientists think Mars was briefly habitable.
The tiny structures in the Allan Hills meteorite have a distinct biological look. Theyre just 20– 100 nanometers in length, which is the size that theoretical nanobacteria would be. However, theyre smaller sized than any recognized lifeform, and since then, researchers have actually discarded the idea that nanobacteria exist.
” We have actually been tricked by life-mimicking procedures in the past.” Dr. Julie Cosmidis, article co-author, Oxford.
The structures in the meteorite brought in a fair bit of attention, and the affair dragged out for a couple of years. However ultimately, the scientific neighborhood proceeded, recognizing that morphology alone cant be utilized to spot primitive life.
This electron microscopic lense image of the Allan Hills meteorite shows chain-like structures that resemble living organisms. Image Credit: By NASA– Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229231
The Allan Hills meteorite affair has faded, but its still significant and is sort of a mentor minute for everybody. False starts like it inspired the authors of the brand-new paper to take a harder appearance at abiotic origins for organic-appearing structures.
” We have actually been fooled by life-mimicking processes in the past,” short article co-author Dr. Julie Cosmidis stated in a news release. “On many occasions, objects that looked like fossil microorganisms were explained in ancient rocks in the world and even in meteorites from Mars, however after much deeper examination, they ended up to have non-biological origins. This short article is a cautionary tale in which we require more research on life-mimicking procedures in the context of Mars so that we avoid falling into the exact same traps over and over again.”
The authors point out that anything Perseverance finds on Mars that looks like a fossil is likely to have really uncertain origins. Caution is required, and ideally, researchers will get in front of any rapidly-spreading conclusions about fossilized life on Mars.
Cosmidis and her co-author Dr. Sean McMahon, from the University of Edinburgh, say that an interdisciplinary effort is required to “… shed more light on how realistic deposits could form on Mars.”
” At some stage, a Mars rover will almost certainly discover something that looks a lot like a fossil, so being able to confidently distinguish these from structures and substances made by chain reactions is crucial,” McMahon said. “For every kind of fossil out there, there is at least one non-biological procedure that produces very comparable things, so there is a genuine need to enhance our understanding of how these kind.”
These images are all “chemical gardens” that look biological however are simply chemical in nature. Chemical garden images SM (parts a– c) or replicated from McMahon (2019) under imaginative commons license (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) (part d).
Chemical gardens are life-like structures produced purely through non-biological chemical procedures. Because numerous of them do look nearly similar to real tiny fossils, the structures are especially seductive. Likewise, both chemical gardens and real fossils can be found in the very same types and ages of rock.
” Many of these are most likely fossils– indeed, fossils from a deep biosphere hosted in igneous rocks, with special importance to some situations for life on Mars– however some are probably not and might result from chemical-garden-like procedures and/or other types of self-organization that cause filamentous crystals and aggregates,” the authors write.
Carbonate-silica biomorphs are another type of abiotic structure that looks like they have biological origins. Theyre formed from alkali Earth metals and look amazingly organic.
These images from the article show structures called carbonate-silica biomorphs that appear biological but arent. The image on the left reveals blob structures, sheet structures, and helical structures which all appear biological.
Then there are carbon-sulphur biomorphs. They also appear shockingly biological in origin and type spheres and both helical and straight filaments. The authors of a 2016 paper on carbon-sulphur biomorphs stated, “The morphology and structure of these carbon/sulphur microstructures so closely look like microbial cellular and extracellular structures that new caution must be applied to the interpretation of putative microbial biosignatures in the fossil record.”.
Carbon-sulphur biomorphs form networks of spheres and filaments that appear convincingly biotic in origin. Image Credit: Images adapted from Nims et al. (2021) (parts a and b) or JC (parts c and f) and courtesy ofC. Nims (University of Michigan) (parts d and e).
Human history in some ways is one long tale of misunderstanding nature, at least until we created the clinical technique. Its not stunning that were still having a hard time with it. In their conclusion, the authors point out how tough it is to conclude that something is a fossil.
The images make it clear that abiotic procedures can produce structures that appear extremely life-like. What makes detection even more tough is that these biomorphs simulate biotic structures in other methods besides just morphology.
” First, abiotic processes can imitate not only morphological biosignatures but also chemical/molecular, mineralogical, textural and isotopic biosignatures; an important attitude is required in all cases and morphological data are not necessarily less dependable than other possible lines of evidence for life,” they describe. So multiple lines of proof can recommend biological origins where there are none.
Perhaps well get fortunate and Perseverance rover or some other objective will discover undeniable evidence of ancient Martian life. But its more likely that we face a series of false positives. “Because life itself is presumed to be the product of self-organization in abiotic geochemical reactions, the intricacy of abiotic natural items should not be underestimated,” they explain.
A great deal of work has actually gone into the study of incorrect biosignatures, and the authors believe more is required. According to McMahon and Cosmidis, more interdisciplinary work is required. The secret is to develop up an abundant dataset for incorrect positives in the exact same manner that weve built one up for biosignatures. They recommend that field experiments in Mars-analogue areas, along with laboratory work, can get us there.
Theyre positive it can be done.
” Nevertheless, we are optimistic that the problem of incorrect biosignatures is not intractable. The much better these phenomena are comprehended, the more sensitively we will be able to discriminate in between real proof of life and these impostors.”.

Theres another issue: there are structures that look like fossils however arent. The structures are particularly seductive since numerous of them do look almost similar to actual microscopic fossils. Carbonate-silica biomorphs are another type of abiotic structure that looks like they have biological origins. The image on the left reveals blob structures, sheet structures, and helical structures which all appear biological. The authors of a 2016 paper on carbon-sulphur biomorphs said, “The morphology and composition of these carbon/sulphur microstructures so carefully resemble microbial cellular and extracellular structures that new caution should be applied to the interpretation of putative microbial biosignatures in the fossil record.”.

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Theres nothing easy about searching for evidence of life on Mars. Not only do we in some way have to land a rover there, which is extraordinarily tough. However the rover needs the best instruments, and it has to browse in the right area. Now, the Perseverance lander has inspected those boxes as it pursues its mission in Jezero Crater.
Theres another issue: there are structures that look like fossils however arent. Many natural chemical procedures produce structures that imitate biological ones. How can we inform them apart? How can we prepare for these incorrect positives?