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Is this proof that there’s actually life on Mars?

Published May 9th, 2021 9:02AM EDT
life on mars
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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We know there are no large, complex life forms on Mars. We know this because we’ve sent so much hardware to the Red Planet that we definitely would have seen it by now, but microbial life and perhaps even something like fungi might still be hiding out somewhere. Missions like NASA’s Perseverance rover could eventually find something that shows life once existed or perhaps still exists on Mars, but what if we already have the evidence? What if we’ve seen life on Mars but just didn’t realize what we were looking at?

A new paper published in Advances in Microbiology suggests that close-up images of the surface of Mars reveal the presence of fungal life alive and well on the planet. It’s an incredibly bold claim, but the researchers provide an impressive argument to go along with images that do appear to show something odd happening on the Martian soil.

The paper produces a wealth of potential evidence that various forms of fungi-like life may exist on the Red Planet. Some images show what appear to be white patches resembling lichen covering parts of the surface, while others show spherical structures that the researchers suggest may be akin to puffball fungi on Earth. They even provide images of what they say is bacterial growth on the Opportunity rover that appears to grow over time.

Mars Sol 2718 (upper left) vs Sol 2813 (right and bottom)--Growth of specimens resembling bacteria and fungi on the Rover, Opportunity, after 95 (Martian) days on Mars--

“Fungi thrive in radiation intense environments,” the researchers write. “Sequential photos document that fungus-like Martian specimens emerge from the soil and increase in size, including those resembling puffballs (Basidiomycota). After obliteration of spherical specimens by the rover wheels, new sphericals-some with stalks-appeared atop the crests of old tracks. Sequences document that thousands of black arctic “araneiforms” grow up to 300 meters in the Spring and disappear by Winter; a pattern repeated each Spring and which may represent massive colonies of black fungi, mould, lichens, algae, methanogens and sulfur reducing species. Black fungi-bacteria-like specimens also appeared atop the rovers. In a series of photographs over three days (Sols) white amorphous specimens within a crevice changed shape and location then disappeared.”

Some of the photos the researchers included appear to be images NASA has already addressed and debunked as being signs of life. The so-called “puffballs” appear to be the “blueberries” that NASA has observed in various places on Mars. These orbs are thought to be the result of mineral buildup within rocks and subsequent erosion. Some of the other images are a bit harder to explain, but NASA has yet to actually suggest that anything it has photographed on Mars is actually evidence of life.

There are many geological processes that can mimic biological processes. NASA appears eager to find evidence of life, either in the present or in the past, but we’ll have to wait until some truly undeniable evidence emerges before we can celebrate such a discovery.

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