Finding potentially habitable planets beyond our Solar System is no easy task. While the number of confirmed extra-solar planets has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades (3791 and counting!), the vast majority have been detected using indirect methods. This means that characterizing the atmospheres and surface conditions of these planets has been a matter of estimates and educated guesses.
Similarly, scientists look for conditions that are similar to what exists here on Earth, since Earth is the only planet we know of that supports life. But as many scientists have indicated, Earth’s conditions has changed dramatically over time. And in a recent study, a pair of researchers argue that a simpler form of photosynthetic life forms may predate those that relies on chlorophyll – which could have drastic implications in the hunt for habitable exoplanets.
Billions of years ago, Earth’s atmosphere was much different than it is today. Whereas our current atmosphere is a delicate balance of nitrogen gas, oxygen and trace gases, the primordial atmosphere was the result of volcanic outgassing – composed primarily of carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and other harsh chemicals. In this respect, our planet’s ancient atmosphere has something in common with Mars’ current atmosphere.
For this reason, some researchers think that introducing photosynthetic bacteria, which helped covert Earth’s atmosphere to what it is today, could be used to terraform Mars someday. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, it appears that cyanobacteria can conduct photosynthesis in low-light conditions. The results of this study could have drastic implications for Mars, where low-light conditions are common.
Cyanobacteria are some of the most ancient organisms on Earth, with fossil evidence indicating that they existed as early as the Archean Era (c.a 3.5 billion years ago). During this time, they played a vital role in converting the abundant CO² in the atmosphere into oxygen gas, which eventually gave rise to ozone (O³) that helped protect the planet from harmful solar radiation.
The photochemistry used by these microbes is similar to what plants and trees – which subsequently evolved – rely on today. The process comes down to red light, which plants absorb, while reflecting green lights thanks to their chlorophyll content. The darker the environment, the less energy plants are able to adsorb, and thus convert into chemical energy.
For the sake of their study, the team led by Nürnberg sought to investigate just how dark an environment can become before photosynthesis becomes impossible. Using a species of bacteria known as Chroococcidiopsis thermalis (C. thermalis), they exposed samples of cyanobacteria to low light to find out what the lowest wavelengths that they could absorb were.
Previous research has suggested that the lower limit for photochemistry to occur was a light wavelength of 700 nanometers – known as the “red limit”. However, the team found that C. thermalis continued to conduct photosynthesis at wavelengths of up to 750 nanometers. The key, according to the team, lies in the presence of previously undetected long-wavelength chlorophylls, which the researchers traced back to the C. thermalis genome.
The researchers traced the origin of these chlorophylls to the C. thermalis genome, which they located in a specific gene cluster that is common in many species of cyanobacteria. This suggests that the ability to surpass the red limit is actually quite common, which has numerous implications. For one, the findings indicate that the limits of photosynthesis are greater than previously thought.
On the other hand, these findings indicate that certain organisms can function using less fuel, which the researchers refer to as an “unprecedented low-energy photosystem”. To Krausz and his colleagues, this photosystem could be the first wave in an effort to terraform Mars. Along with efforts to thicken the atmosphere and warm the environment, the introduction of C. thermalis and terrestrial plants could slowly make Mars suitable for human habitation.
“This might sound like science fiction, but space agencies and private companies around the world are actively trying to turn this aspiration into reality in the not-too-distant future. Photosynthesis could theoretically be harnessed with these types of organisms to create air for humans to breathe on Mars. Low-light adapted organisms, such as the cyanobacteria we’ve been studying, can grow under rocks and potentially survive the harsh conditions on the red planet.”
In this respect, Krausz and his colleagues are joined by groups like the CyanoKnights – a team of students and volunteer scientists from the University of Applied Science and the Technical University in Darmstadt, Germany. Much like Krausz’s team, the CyanoKnights that want to seed Mars with cyanobacteria in order to trigger an ecological transformation, thus paving the way for colonization.
This idea was submitted as part of the Mars One University Competition, which took place in the summer of 2014. What’s more, there have been recent research findings that indicate that organisms similar to cyanobacteria may already exist on other planets. If this most recent study is correct, it means that such organisms could survive in low-light conditions, which means astronomers could expand their search for potential life to other locations in the Universe.
From offering humans the means to conduct terraforming under more restrictive conditions to assisting in the search for extra-terrestrial life, this research could have some drastic implications for our understanding of life in the Universe, and how to expand our place in it.
Billions of years ago, Earth’s environment was very different from the one we know today. Basically, our planet’s primordial atmosphere was toxic to life as we know it, consisting of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other gases. However, by the Paleoproterozoic Era (2.5–1.6 billion years ago), a dramatic change occurred where oxygen began to be introduced to the atmosphere – known as the Great Oxidation Event (GOE).
Until recently, scientists were not sure if this event – which was the result of photosynthetic bacteria altering the atmosphere – occurred rapidly or not. However, according to a recent study by a team of international scientists, this event was much more rapid than previously thought. Based on newly-discovered geological evidence, the team concluded that the introduction of oxygen to our atmosphere was “more like a fire hose” than a trickle.
In short, the Great Oxygenation Event took began roughly 2.45 billion years ago at the beginning of the Proterozoic eon. This process is believed to have been the result of cyanobacteria slowly metabolizing the carbon dioxide (CO2) and producing oxygen gas, which now makes up about 20% of our atmosphere. However, until recently, scientists were unable to place much in the way of constraints on this period.
Luckily, a team of geologists from the Geological Survey of Norway – in collaboration with the Karelian Research Center in Petrozavodsk, Russia – recently recovered samples of preserved crystallized salts in Russia that are dated to this period. They were extracted from a 1.9 km-deep (1.2 mi) hole in Karelia in northwest Russia, from the the Onega Parametric Hole (OPH) drilling site on the western shores of Lake Onega.
These salt crystals, which are roughly 2 billion years ago, were the result of ancient seawater evaporating. Using these samples, Blättler and her team were able to learn things about the composition of the oceans and the atmosphere that existed on Earth around the time of the GOE. For starters, the team determined that they contained a surprisingly large amount of sulfate, which is the result of seawater reacting with oxygen.
As Aivo Lepland – a researcher at the Geological Survey of Norway, a geology specialist at Tallinn University of Technology, and senior author on the study – explained in recent Princeton press release:
“This is the strongest ever evidence that the ancient seawater from which those minerals precipitated had high sulfate concentrations reaching at least 30 percent of present-day oceanic sulfate as our estimations indicate. This is much higher than previously thought and will require considerable rethinking of the magnitude of oxygenation of Earth’s 2-billion year old atmosphere-ocean system.”
Prior to this, scientists were unsure how long it took for our atmosphere to reach its current balance of nitrogen and oxygen, which is essential for life as we know it. Basically, opinion was divided between it being something that happened rapidly, or occurred over the course of millions of years. Much of this stems from the fact that the oldest rock salts discovered were dated to a billion years ago.
“It has been hard to test these ideas because we didn’t have evidence from that era to tell us about the composition of the atmosphere,” said Blättler. However, by discovering rock salts that are roughly 2 billion years old, scientists now have the evidence they need to place constraint on the GOE. The find was also very fortunate, given that such rock salts samples are rather fragile.
The samples used for this study contained halite (which is chemically identical to table salt or sodium chloride) as well as other salts of calcium, magnesium and potassium – which dissolve easily over time. However, the sample obtained in this case was exceptionally-well preserved deep within the Earth. As such, they are able to provide scientists with invaluable clues as to what happened around the time of the GOE.
Looking ahead, this latest study is likely to lead to new models that explain what occurred after the GOE to cause oxygen gas to accumulate in our atmosphere. As John Higgins, an assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton who provided interpretation of the geochemical analysis, explained:
“This is a pretty special class of geologic deposits. There has been a lot of debate as to whether the Great Oxidation Event, which is tied to increase and decrease in various chemical signals, represents a big change in oxygen production, or just a threshold that was crossed. The bottom line is that this paper provides evidence that the oxygenation of the Earth across this time period involved a lot of oxygen production… There may have been important changes in feedback cycles on land or in the oceans, or a large increase in oxygen production by microbes, but either way it was much more dramatic than we had an understanding of before.”
These models are also likely to help in the hunt for life beyond our Solar System. By understanding what took place on our own planet billions of years ago to make it suitable for life, we will be able to spot these same conditions and processes on other planets.
On February 24, 2009, the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) mission — designed to study the global fate of carbon dioxide — resulted in failure. Shortly after launch, the rocket nose didn’t separate as expected, and the satellite could not be released.
But now, a carbon copy of the original mission, called OCO-2 is slated to launch on July 1, 2014.
The original failure ended in “heartbreak. The entire mission was lost. We didn’t even have one problem to solve,” said OCO-2 Project Manager Ralph Basilio in a press conference earlier today. “On behalf of the entire team that worked on the original OCO mission, we’re excited about this opportunity … to finally be able to complete some unfinished business.”
The motivation for the mission is simple: in the last few hundred years, human beings have played a large role in the planet-wide balancing act called the carbon cycle. Our activities, such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation are pushing the cycle out of its natural balance, adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
“There’s a steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over time,” said OCO-2 Project Scientist Mike Gunson. “But at the same time, we can see that this has an annual cycle of dropping every summer, in this case in the northern hemisphere, as the forests and plants grow. And this is the Earth breathing.”
Carbon dioxide is both one of the best-measured greenhouse gases and least-measured. Half of the emissions in the atmosphere become largely distributed around the globe in a matter of months. But the other half of the emissions — the half that is being absorbed through natural processes into the land or the ocean — is not evenly distributed.
To understand carbon dioxide absorption, we need a high-resolution global map.
This is where the launch failure of OCO proved to be a blessing in disguise. It gave OCO-2 scientists a chance to work with project managers of the Japanese Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT), which successfully launched in 2009. The unexpected collaboration allowed them to stumble upon a hidden surprise.
“A couple of my colleagues made what I think is a fantastic discovery,” said Gunson. They discovered fluorescent light from vegetation.
As plants absorb sunlight, some of the light is dissipated as heat, while some is re-emitted at longer wavelengths as fluorescence. Although scientists have measured fluorescence in laboratory settings and ground-based experiments, they have never done so from space.
Measuring the fluorescent glow proves to be a challenge because the tiny signal is overpowered by reflected sunlight. Researchers found that by tuning their GOSAT spectrometer — an instrument that can measure light across the electromagnetic spectrum — to look at very narrow channels, they could see parts of the spectrum where there was fluorescence but less reflect sunlight.
This surprise will give OCO-2 an unexpected global view from space, shedding new light on the productivity of vegetation on land. It will provide a regional map of absorbed carbon dioxide, helping scientists to estimate photosynthesis rates over vast scales and better understand the second half of the carbon cycle.
“The OCO-2 satellite has one instrument: a three-channel grating spectrometer,” said OCO-2 Program Executive Betsy Edwards. “But with this one instrument we’re going to collect hundreds of thousands of measurements each day, which will then provide a global description of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s going to be an unprecedented level of coverage and resolution, something we have not seen before with previous spacecraft.”
OCO-2 will result in nearly 100 times more observations of both carbon dioxide and fluorescence than GOSAT. It will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 2:56 a.m. on July 1.
“Climate change is the challenge of our generation,” said Edwards. “NASA is particularly ready to … provide information, on documenting and understanding what these changes are on the climate, in predicting the impact of these changes to the Earth, and in sharing all of this information that we gather for the benefit of society.”
The grass may definitely not be greener on some alien worlds, suggests a new study from the UK. For example, planets in double-star systems could have grey or black vegetation.
Researcher Jack O’Malley-James of the University of St Andrews in Scotland worked out how photosynthesis in plants is affected by the color of the light they receive. On Earth, most plants have evolved to be green in order to take advantage of the yellowish color of the sunlight that’s received on the surface of our planet. (Our Sun, classified as a “Population I yellow dwarf star”, would look bright white from space but our atmosphere makes it appear yellow.) There are lots of other stars like our Sun in the Universe, and many of them are in multiple systems sharing orbits with other types of stars…red dwarfs, blue stars, red giants, white dwarfs…stars come in many different colors depending on their composition, age, size and temperature. We may be used to yellow but nature really has no preference! (Although red dwarfs happen to be the garden variety star in our own galaxy.)
Planets that orbit within these multiple systems and exist within the habitable “Goldilocks” zone (and we are finding more and more candidates every day!) could evolve plants that depend on suns with different colors than ours. Green does a good job powering photosynthesis here, but on a planet orbiting a red dwarf and Sun-like star plants could very well be grey or black to absorb more light energy, according to O’Malley-James.
“Our simulations suggest that planets in multi-star systems may host exotic forms of the more familiar plants we see on Earth. Plants with dim red dwarf suns for example, may appear black to our eyes, absorbing across the entire visible wavelength range in order to use as much of the available light as possible.”
– Jack O’Malley-James, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews
The study takes into consideration many different combinations of star varieties and how any potential life-sustaining planets could orbit them.
In some instances different portions of a planet may be illuminated by a differently-colored star in a pair…what sorts of variations in plant (and subsequently, animal) evolution could arise then?
And it’s not just the colors of plants that could evolve differently. “For planets orbiting two stars like our own, harmful radiation from intense stellar flares could lead to plants that develop their own UV-blocking sunscreens, or photosynthesizing microorganisms that can move in response to a sudden flare,” said O’Malley-James.
Kermit may have been right all along…being green might really not be easy!