Astrobiology

Purple Bacteria — Not Green Plants — Might Be the Strongest Indication of Life

Astrobiologists continue to work towards determining which biosignatures might be best to look for when searching for life on other worlds. The most common idea has been to search for evidence of plants that use the green pigment chlorophyll, like we have on Earth. However, a new paper suggests that bacteria with purple pigments could flourish under a broader range of environments than their green cousins. That means current and next-generation telescopes should be looking for the emissions of purple lifeforms.

“Purple bacteria can thrive under a wide range of conditions, making it one of the primary contenders for life that could dominate a variety of worlds,” said Lígia Fonseca Coelho, a postdoctoral associate at the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) and first author of “Purple is the New Green: Biopigments and Spectra of Earth-like Purple Worlds,” published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.

Artist’s concept of Earth-like exoplanets, which strikes the careful balance between water and landmass. Credit: NASA

According to NASA’s Exoplanet Archive, 5612 extrasolar planets have been found so far, as of this writing, and another 10,000 more are considered planetary candidates, but have not yet been confirmed. Of all those, there are just over 30 potentially Earth-like worlds, planets that lie in their stars’ habitable zones where conditions are conducive to the existence of liquid water on surface.

But Earth-like has a broad meaning, ranging from size, mass, composition, and various chemical makeups. While being within a star’s habitable zone certainly means there’s the potential for life, it doesn’t necessarily mean that life could have emerged there, or even if it did, the life on that world might look very different from Earth.

“While oxygenic photosynthesis gives rise to modern green landscapes, bacteriochlorophyll-based anoxygenic phototrophs can also colour their habitats and could dominate a much wider range of environments on Earth-like exoplanets,” Coelho and team wrote in their paper. “While oxygenic photosynthesis gives rise to modern green landscapes, bacteriochlorophyll-based anoxygenic phototrophs can also colour their habitats and could dominate a much wider range of environments on Earth-like exoplanets.”

The researchers characterized the reflectance spectra of a collection of purple sulfur and purple non-sulfur bacteria from a variety of anoxic and oxic environments found here on Earth in a variety of environments, from shallow waters, coasts and marshes to deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Even though these are collectively referred to as “purple” bacteria, they actually include a range of colors from yellow, orange, brown and red due to pigments  — such as those that make tomatoes red and carrots orange.

These bacteria thrive on low-energy red or infrared light using simpler photosynthesis systems utilizing forms of chlorophyll that absorb infrared and don’t make oxygen. They are likely to have been prevalent on early Earth before the advent of plant-type photosynthesis, the researchers said, and could be particularly well-suited to planets that circle cooler red dwarf stars – the most common type in our galaxy.

A collection of bacteria samples in the Cornell University Space Sciences Building. Ryan Young/Cornell University.

That means this type of bacteria might be more prevalent on more and a wider variety of exo-worlds.

On a world where these bacteria might be dominant, it would produce a distinctive “light fingerprint” detectable by future telescopes.

In their paper, Coelho and team presented models for Earth-like planets where purple bacteria might dominate the surface and show the impact of their signatures on the reflectance spectra of terrestrial exoplanets.

“Our research provides a new resource to guide the detection of purple bacteria and improves our chances of detecting life on exoplanets with upcoming telescopes,” the team wrote.

“We need to create a database for signs of life to make sure our telescopes don’t miss life if it happens not to look exactly like what we encounter around us every day,” said co-author Lisa Kaltenegger, CSI director and associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University, in a press release from Cornell.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Nancy_A and and Instagram at and https://www.instagram.com/nancyatkinson_ut/

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