astrobiologyMars

Life on Mars Found: New Paper Suggests Fungi on Mars

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Figure 1. Sol 88, photographed by Opportunity's "left" Panoramic Camera "eye." A significant majority of experts in fungi, lichens, geomorphology, and minerology agreed these may be lichens (Joseph 2016). These lichen-like specimens are estimated to be approximately 2 mm to 6 mm in size/length (based on bore hole specs) and are similar to terrestrial lichens (see text for details). Although there is no known geological process which commonly produces mushroom shaped rocks with stems, it is unknown if these are in fact living organisms. Similarities in morphology are not proof.

Is there evidence of life on Mars? An international team of research scientists, in a just published monograph titled “Evidence of Life on Mars? –consisting of a scholarly review of nearly 200 peer reviewed scientific studies– answer this age old question with a resounding “yes.” And they’ve included pictures of Martian specimens, photographed by NASA, which they say support their claims.

No, not little green men, but little green algae, lichens, Martian mushrooms, seasonal fluctuations in Martian methane, sediments resembling stromatolites, pictures of fungi atop the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity, and before and after photos of 15 mushroom-shaped specimens growing larger and emerging from beneath the red sands of Mars.


Figure 2. Sol 37, photographed by Opportunity’s “left” Panoramic “eye.” A majority of experts agreed these may be lichens (Joseph 2016). The average size of these lichen-like specimens are estimated to be 2 mm to 7 mm, and are similar to terrestrial lichens (see Figure 3). However, if these are living organisms, or unusual sediments fashioned by the alien environment of Mars is unknown.

According to co-author and research team member Dr. Regina Dass (Department of Microbiology, School of Life Sciences, India) “There are no geological or other abiogenic forces on Earth which can produce sedimentary structures, by the hundreds, which have mushroom shapes, stems, stalks, and shed what looks like spores on the surrounding surface. In fact, fifteen specimens were photographed by NASA growing out of the ground in just three days!”

But were these specimens really “growing?” Maybe these are rocks uncovered by wind?

“Certainly that’s possible” admits co-author, Dr. Nicolo Cantasano, a geobiologist at Italy’s National Research Council, headquartered in Rome. “However, wind would not account for what appears to be masses of black fungi growing on the rovers, and what appears to be white fungi, or bio-corrosion within a sheltered compartment atop the rover Curiosity.”


Figure 3. Terrestrial Lichens / Dibaeis baeomyces. Ranging from 2 mm to 6 mm in size. Photos reproduced by permission: Courtesy of Dragisa Savic (left) and Stephen and Sylvia Sharnoff (right).

Team member, Dr. Vincenzo Rizzo, a biogeologist working under the auspices of the National Research Council, also points to the seasonal fluctuations in Martian methane as additional evidence of life. “As we detail in our article, 90% of terrestrial methane is biological in origin and seasonal fluctuations in atmospheric methane are directly correlated with plant growth and death cycles. The cyclic fluctuations in Martian methane is reflective of active biology which is also depicted in before and after pictures of specimens photographed by NASA.”


Figure 5. Sol 257 photographed by NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity. Martian specimens resembling Puffballs (Basidiomycota), some with stalks and shedding what appears to be spores and the outer cap, lower cup, and universal veil that covers embryonic fungi. To speculate further, the thick coats of white material being shed from the sides of some specimens may consist of crustose, and the white powder-spore-like material may consist of leprose. It is impossible, however, to determine with a high level of confidence if these are in fact living organisms. Similarities in morphology do not constitute proof.

But many believe the sphere-like specimens photographed emerging from beneath the Martian soil, are not mushrooms but hematite, what NASA affectionately refers to as “blueberries.”


Figure 7. Comparing terrestrial fungi (left) with Martian specimens (right, Sol 221 photographed by the Rover Opportunity at Meridian Planum, Mars). Credits: terrestrial puffballs, photo reproduced from myko.cz, Czech Mycological Society.

Specimens depicted in Figures 5 and 6 were photographed by the “microscopic imager” attached to the rover Opportunity. According to specs provided on NASA’s website, the microscopic imager has a focal length ranging from 0.8 inch (21 millimeters) an optimal focus distance of 2.67 inches (68 millimeters) and can resolve features as small at 0.004 inches (0.1 mm). The original image’s size of Figures 6 and 7 was 1024 x 1024 pixels (0.001 inch or 0.031 millimeter per pixel). Based on these stats, the estimated size of the specimens in Figures 5 and 6 range from 1 mm to 50 mm (1 cm to 5 cm). Mature terrestrial puffballs, on average, are approximately 4.267 cm in size (Petersen 2013; Roberts & Evans 2011). In size and morphology several of these specimens resemble puffballs (Joseph 2016).
The specimens depicted in Figures 5, 6, 8, also clearly resemble spherical hematite (Figure 4) in size, shape, morphology. However, hematite does consist of and does not shed sheaths of what appears to be a thick veil of material coating its outer-surface. Then there is the white fluffy-powdery spore-like material which appears to litter the ground. If not biological, perhaps these thick flakes and powdery substances are clumps of minerals, patina or salt and products of a sedimentological process in reaction to water or the Martian atmosphere that adhered to the contours of Martian hematite and surface features.
Evidence favoring the fungal/puffball hypothesis is what appears to be the growth and emergence of 15 specimens, over a three day period (Figure 8). Specifically, five appear to increase in size whereas ten emerge from the ground. If they are immature and still growing, this would explain the absence of spores. If they are not growing, and are in fact hematite, then the only other reasonable explanation is that a powerful wind uncovered these specimens by blowing away dust, dirt, and sand.

“We are not disagreeing with NASA. NASA has some of the greatest scientists and engineers in the world. However, hematite is also a product of biological activity,” argues Dr. Rizzo. “Just as stromatolites are fashioned together via the action of cyanobacteria, fungi and bacteria also help to cement terrestrial hematite together. We should expect that the same biological processes helped fashion hematite on Mars.”


Figure 8. Sol 1145-left v Sol 1148-right). Comparing Sol 1145-left vs Sol 1148-right. Growth of fifteen Martian specimens over three days. Specimens labeled 1-5 and marked with red circles have increased in size. Those specified by arrows–Sol 1148-right–demarcate the emergence of ten new specimens which were not visible in Sol 1145-left photographed three days earlier by NASA/JPL. Differences in photo quality are secondary to changes in camera-closeup-focus by NASA. The majority of experts in fungi, lichens, geomorphology, and mineralogy agreed these are likely living specimens, i.e. fungi, puffballs. An alternate explanation is a strong wind uncovered hematite which had been buried beneath sand and dirt.

“Hematite also does not take the shape of lichens,” adds Dr. Dass. “These Martian specimens have mushroom-shapes, stalks and stems and are the same height and have the same growth patterns as terrestrial lichens.”

As pointed out by co-author, Dr. Giorgio Bianciardi of the Department of Medical Science, Siena University: “Drs Rizzo, Cantasano and I have previously published extensive comparative statistical micro-analyses of Martian sedimentary specimens which resemble stromatolites constructed by cyanobacteria, and they are nearly identical to terrestrial stromatolites.”

“Dr Rizzo and I” says Dr. Cantasano, “first published this evidence of Martian stromatolites in 2009, in the International Journal of Astrobiology, and our work has been independently replicated by Dr. J.D. Farmer (Arizona State University) and Dr. Nora Nofke (Old Dominion University) who published their results in Nature Communications and the journal Astrobiology.”

Figure 17. Microanalyses of a Martian stromatolite (top) photographed by the Rover Curiosity (Sol 506) compared with a terrestrial stromatolite from Lagoa Salgada, Brazil (bottom). Highly organized microspherules and thrombolytic microfacies are common to both. Earthly Cyanobacteria typically form voids, intertwined filaments, and layer deformation within stromatolites. It is possible these formations were produced geologically in the absence of any biological influences.

As summarized by Levin (2010; Levin & Straat 2016), the Viking Labeled Release (LR) experiments were designed to detect biological activity on Mars. Thousands of field tests were performed and it was proved the LR experiment was capable of accurately detecting a very wide range of microorganisms including aerobic, anaerobic, and facultative bacteria, as well as lichens, fungi, and algae.
Once on Mars a nutrient containing radioactive carbon was added to a Martian soil sample and the presence of radioactivity in the gasses released served as evidence of active metabolism. A control experiment heat-treated a second sample to kill microorganisms. Positive results including evidence of biological metabolism were obtained from the raw sample which was not subject to extreme heat-sterilization. By contrast, when soil samples were heated to 50°C, biological activity decreased by 65%. When Martian soil was pre-heated to 160°C there was no evidence of biology. When two samples of Martian soil were stored at approximately 10°C for long time periods there was a 90% and 100% reduction in activity. When not subject to sterilization, robust evidence of biological metabolism and increases in activity were obtained (Klein et al. 1976). As described by Levin and Straat (2016), the LR instruments operated flawlessly on Mars. Both Viking landing sites, some 4,000 miles apart, produced strong responses and met the pre-mission criteria for the detection of life.
To distinguish between non-biological and biological agents, additional experiments were executed via commands from Earth. Each such ad hoc series of tests again demonstrated on-going Martian metabolism. Four different LR experiments were conducted, each of which yielded positive results, and five controls, all of which supported the positive results as biological.
Levin concluded that the “amplitudes and kinetics of the Mars LR results were similar to those of terrestrial results, especially close to those of soils in, or from, frigid areas,” and that the LR experiment had found evidence of biological activity on Mars (Levin 2010; Levin & Straat 1976, 1979a,b, 2016).
The results, however, were rejected by NASA administrators who argued that since the addition of more nutrients into the soil temporarily decreased the level of biological activity “the LR therefore had not detected life on Mars, but had detected a chemical or physical agent that had produced false positive results” (Levin 2010). NASA’s arguments (detailed on the NASA/Mars website), though interesting, are not based on factual evidence, but post-hoc theorizing and the interested reader is encouraged to review NASA’s claims to arrive at their own conclusions. In fact, according to Levin (2010) “NASA-bonded Antarctic soil 664 had reacted to its second injection as had the Martian soils” and “the decline in gas level was caused by re-adsorption of the evolved gas into the dampened soil.” That only trace amounts of carbon and organic molecules have been detected on Mars (Bieman et al. 1976, 1977; Ming et al. 2009; Sutter et al. 2016) also does not support NASA’s physical-chemical-false-positive hypothesis.
Subsequently, Bianciardi, Miller, Straat, and Levin (2012) performed a mathematical complexity deep analysis of the Viking LR data, employing seven complexity variables. It was determined that the Viking LR positive responses demonstrated a different pattern from control responses which resembled near-random noise. By contrast, the active experiments exhibited highly organized responses typical of biology.

“Our article, Evidence of Life on Mars? is not based on our opinion” adds Dr. Dass. “We review nearly 200 research studies conducted by over 500 scientists, many of whom work at NASA; and all this work collectively weighs in favor of biology.”

According to Dr. Bianciardi, who, along with Drs Levin, Straat and Miller, analyzed the 1976 Mars Viking Labeled Release results, “Biological activity on Mars was first detected in 1976. NASA dismissed that evidence then inexplicably refused to equip any subsequent mission with life detection technology. As we detail in our review, there is now considerable evidence supporting Viking’s original findings of life on Mars.”

“We admit” says Dr. Dass, “we don’t have a smoking gun. No photos of cells or cellular structure. There is no definitive proof, only a lot of evidence which shouts: Biology.”

“The only way to know for sure,” adds Dr. Bianciardi, “is to retrieve these specimens and return them to Earth. This should be a NASA priority.”

But how could these organisms survive on Mars? What about water? Radiation?

“Numerous species, including fungi, thrive in radiation intense environments” explains Dr. Dass. “As to water, we should recognize that Mars is an alien world, and any life on Mars may have evolved unique alien characteristics which enable them to survive.”

Many scientists believe that Earth, early in its history, had the power of producing life; a process described scientifically as “abiogenesis.” Could Mars have also independently produced life in an organic Martian soup?

“The most obvious source of life on Mars is Earth,” explains team member, Dr. R. Gabriel Joseph of Astrobiological Associates. “Microbes and fungi may have been repeatedly transferred from Earth to Mars. Numerous experiments have shown that microbes embedded in rock and stone may survive ejection from Earth following meteor strikes, whereas biota in the upper atmosphere may be blown into space by solar winds. And despite NASA’s best efforts, millions of microbes survived sterilization of Mars-bound spacecraft. Everything which has landed on Mars may have included microbes and fungi as part of their cargo. Likewise, these same species remain viable after long term exposure to the radiation intense environment of space whereas simulations studies have shown that prokaryotes, fungi and lichens survive in simulated Martian environments. Therefore, it can be predicted that surviving species transferred from Earth to Mars, would go forth and multiply.”

Are these scenarios plausible?

Dr. Mårten Wikström Professor of physical biochemistry, Institute of Biotechnology, University of Helsinki say “yes.” “The observations are very interesting and suggestive of life earlier and/or now on Mars” he wrote in an email to the editors, after reading the article. “What I found important, though somewhat disappointing, was the well-founded ideas that such life could easily have been transferred from Earth. If so, life on Mars would not be of particular interest. The key missing information is obviously DNA analysis of samples from Mars.”

A Professor of Biology, at University of California at Santa Cruz violently disagrees, and in an angry email sent to the Editors, sarcastically wrote: “Fungi in space? Duh, organisms need oxygen.”

Well, he’s wrong, of course. Even high school biology students know that anaerobes flourish in oxygen-free environments. The survival of microbes in space has also been well established by NASA scientists including Dr. Mancinelli, who is editor of the International Journal of Astrobiology which first published Dr. Rizzo’s and Dr. Cantasano’s discoveries of what appears to be Martian stromatolites.

Of course, many scientists prefer abiogenic explanations and will angrily reject and ridicule any possibility of Martian biology.

The Journal’s editorial board recognized the controversial implications of “Evidence of Life on Mars?” In fact, the Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews was so concerned about “negative blow back” that a decision to publish was not made until after receiving the verdict of fourteen qualified experts (eight Senior Editors and six independent scientists) who refereed and peer reviewed “Evidence of Life on Mars?”

Eleven experts in total recommended publication (following revision) and of the eight Editors three rejected the article. One editor was vehement in his opposition and angrily argued the article should be rejected and that the minority view should prevail.

Why the opposition to publishing evidence?

Many scientists reject the evidence for religious reasons, believing evidence of Martian life is contrary to the Bible. Dr. Velvl Greene who supervised over 100 biologists at NASA admitted, in his article, “The Rebbe and the Scientist: Looking for Life on Mars,” that he was warned by religious zealots that searching for life on Mars was “contrary to Torah,” and NASA “shouldn’t be doing this kind of work.”

According to Dr. Gil Levin, when he was discussing the Mars Viking LR experiments in a NASA meeting attended by Dr. Phil Abelson editor of the journal Science: “Abelson became angry and began shouting: ”The Bible tells us there cannot be any life on other planets.'”

Unfortunately, vehement, irrational opposition when the status quo is challenged, is not just the history of religion, but science. Einstein and his theories were initially ridiculed by many, and once accepted, Einstein and his followers ridiculed the “new” Copenhagen Model of Quantum Physics. Galileo was threatened with death and forced to recant; Bruno was tortured and burned alive for teaching that stars were like our sun and ringed with living Earth-like planets; Copernicus was so terrified he would not allow his master work to be published until after his death.

Perhaps Schopenhauer said it best: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”

The research team who published “Evidence of Life on Mars?” do not claim to have discovered any new “truths” and explicitly deny they have proved there is life on Mars. As stated in their conclusions:

“Similarities in morphology are not proof. In many respects the observations presented here could be described as circumstantial and do not rise to the level of “extraordinary evidence” thus precluding “extraordinary claims.” Although, collectively, the evidence, in total, weighs in favor of biology, we can only conclude that the question of life on Mars remains unanswered.”

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