Toxic “Habitable” Worlds Could Be Havens for Alien Microbes

Don’t forget your spacesuit: Complex lifeforms, such as humans, would not survive on many of the worlds we thought would be interstellar tropical getaways


Worlds like Earth may be even rarer than we thought.

We live on a planet that provides the perfect balance of ingredients to support a vast ecosystem. This amazing world orbits the Sun at just the right distance where water can exist in a liquid state—a substance that, as we all know, is an essential component for our biology to function. Earth is also an oddball in our solar system, being the only planet where these vast oceans of liquid water persist on its surface, all enshrouded in a thick atmosphere that provides the stage for a complex global interplay of chemical and biological cycles that, before we industrialized humans came along, has supported billions of years of uninterrupted evolution and biological diversity.

Humans, being the proud intelligent beings that we profess to be, are stress-testing this delicate balance by pumping an unending supply of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Being a potent greenhouse gas, we’re currently living through a new epoch in our planet’s biological history where an exponential increase in CO2 is being closely followed by an increase in global average temperatures. We are, in effect, altering Earth’s habitability. Well done, humans!

While this trend is a clear threat to the sustainability of our biosphere, spare a thought for other “habitable” worlds that may appear to have all the right stuff for complex lifeforms to evolve, but toxic levels of the very chemicals that keep these worlds habitable has curtailed the possibility of complex life from gaining a foothold.

Welcome to the Not-So-Habitable Zone

Habitable zone exoplanets are the Gold Standard for exoplanet-hunters and astrobiologists alike. Finding a distant alien world within this zone—a region surrounding any star where it’s not too hot and not too cold for water to exist on its surface, a region also known as the “Goldilocks Zone” for obvious reasons—spawns a host of questions that our most advanced telescopes in space and on the ground try to answer: Is that exoplanet Earth-sized? Does it have an atmosphere? What kind of star is it orbiting? Does its system possess a Jupiter-like gas giant? These questions are all trying to help us understand whether that world has the Earthly qualities that could support hypothetical extraterrestrial life.

(Of course, there’s the debate as to whether all life in the universe is Earth-life-like, but as we’re the only biological examples that we know of in the entire galaxy, it’s the best place to start when pondering what biological similarities extraterrestrial life may have to us.)

The habitable zone for exoplanets is a little more complicated than simply the distance at which they orbit their host stars, however. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, can extend the area of a star’s habitable zone. For example: If an atmosphere-less planet orbits beyond the outermost edge of its habitable zone, the water it has on its surface will remain in a solid, frozen state. Now, give that planet an atmosphere laced with greenhouse gases and its surface may become warm enough to maintain the water in a liquid state, thereby boosting its habitable potential.

But how much is too much of a good thing? And how might this determination impact our hunt for truly habitable worlds beyond our own?

In a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers have taken another look at the much-coveted habitable zone exoplanets to find that, while some of the atmospheric gases are essential to maintain a temperature balance, should there be too much of the stuff keeping some of those worlds at a habitable temperature, their toxicity could curtail any lifeforms more complex than a single-celled microbe from evolving.

“This is the first time the physiological limits of life on Earth have been considered to predict the distribution of complex life elsewhere in the universe,” said Timothy Lyons, of the University of California, Riverside, and director of the Alternative Earths Astrobiology Center.

“Imagine a ‘habitable zone for complex life’ defined as a safe zone where it would be plausible to support rich ecosystems like we find on Earth today,” he said in a statement. “Our results indicate that complex ecosystems like ours cannot exist in most regions of the habitable zone as traditionally defined.”

Toxic Limits

Carbon dioxide is an essential component of our ecosystem, particularly as it’s a greenhouse gas. Acting like an insulator, CO2 absorbs energy from the Sun and heats our atmosphere. When in balance, it stops too much energy from being radiated back out into space, thereby preventing our planet from being turned into a snowball. Levels of CO2 have ebbed and flowed throughout the biological history of our planet and it has always been a minor component of atmospheric gases, but its greenhouse effect (i.e. the atmospheric heating effect) is extremely potent and the human-driven 400+ppm levels are causing dramatic climate changes that modern biological systems haven’t experienced for millions of years. That said, the CO2 levels required to keep some “habitable” exoplanets in a warm enough state would need to be a lot more concentrated than the current terrestrial levels, potentially making their atmospheres toxic.

“To sustain liquid water at the outer edge of the conventional habitable zone, a planet would need tens of thousands of times more carbon dioxide than Earth has today,” said lead author Edward Schwieterman, of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “That’s far beyond the levels known to be toxic to human and animal life on Earth.”

In the blue zone: some of the known exoplanets that fall within the habitable zones of their stars may have an overabundance of CO (yellow/brown), at a level that is toxic to human life. Likewise, the more CO2 (from blue to white) will become toxic at a certain point. The sweet-spot is where Earth sits, with Kepler 442b (if it has a habitable atmosphere) coming in second [Schwieterman et al., 2019. Link to paper]

From their computer simulations, to keep CO2 at acceptable non-toxic levels, while maintaining planetary habitability, the researchers realized that for simple animal life to survive, the habitable zone will shrink to no more than half of the traditional habitable zone. For more complex lifeforms—like humans—to survive, that zone will shrink even more, to less than one third. In other words, to strike the right balance between keeping a hypothetical planet warm enough, but not succumbing to CO2 toxicity, the more complex the lifeform, the more compact the habitable zone.

This issue doesn’t stop with CO2. Carbon monoxide (CO) doesn’t exist at toxic levels in Earth’s atmosphere as our hot and bright Sun drives chemical reactions that remove dangerous levels of the molecule. But for exoplanets orbiting cooler stars that emit lower levels of ultraviolet radiation, such as those that orbit red dwarf stars (re: Proxima Centauri and TRAPPIST-1), dangerous levels of this gas can accumulate. Interestingly, though CO is a very well-known toxic gas that prevents animal blood from carrying oxygen around the body, it is harmless to microbes on Earth. So it may be that habitable zone exoplanets orbiting red dwarfs could be a microbial heaven, but an asphyxiation hell for more complex lifeforms that have cardiovascular systems.

While it could be argued that life finds a way—extraterrestrial organisms may have evolved into more complex states after adapting to their environments, thereby circumventing the problems complex terrestrial life has with CO2 and CO—if we are to find a truly “Earth-like” habitable world that could support human biology, these factors need to be considered before declaring an exoplanet habitable. And, besides, we might want to make the interstellar journey to one of these alien destinations in the distant future; it would be nice to chill on an extraterrestrial beach without having to wear a spacesuit.

“Our discoveries provide one way to decide which of these myriad planets we should observe in more detail,” said Christopher Reinhard, of the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-leader of the Alternative Earths team. “We could identify otherwise habitable planets with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide levels that are likely too high to support complex life.”

Earth: Unique, Precious

Like many astronomical and astrobiological studies, our ongoing quest to explore strange, new (and habitable) worlds has inevitably led back to our home and the relationship we have with our delicate ecosystem.

“I think showing how rare and special our planet is only enhances the case for protecting it,” Schwieterman said. “As far as we know, Earth is the only planet in the universe that can sustain human life.”

So, before we test the breaking point of our atmosphere’s sustainability, perhaps we should consider our own existential habitability before its too late to repair the damage of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s the only way that we, as complex (and allegedly intelligent) lifeforms, can continue to ask the biggest questions of our rich and mysterious universe.

What Might We Name the First Mars Microbes?

I, for one, welcome our new Mars desert-dwelling overlords.

Just some random (terrestrial) microbes doing microbial things [MSU]

It’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time: if we discover microbes eking out an existence on Mars, what might they be called? At first, I presumed it would be a variation on how we designate microbial names on Earth. Something like Staphylococcus aureus but swap out the “aureus” for “ares” (Greek for “Mars”, the god of war) or … something.

As you can see, biology isn’t my strong suit and butchering Latin and Greek is all in a day’s work. So, feeling out of my depth, I decided to leave that thought alone and file the idea under “Interesting, But Needs More Research.” That’s where the topic stayed for a while; I wanted to wait for a related piece of science to appear in a journal that could be a catalyst for my question. And last week, that research surfaced. I saw my opportunity.

Searching for Martians on Earth

The Atacama Desert is an amazing place. Having visited the ESO’s Paranal Observatory and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in 2016 as a lucky member of the #MeetESO team, I have first-hand experience of that extreme and breathtaking region. While driving between sites, we’d often go for hours without seeing any vegetation or life of any kind. Atacama is the driest place on Earth; its salty, parched soil is bombarded by ultraviolet radiation, and the core of the desert doesn’t receive rain for decades. But just because life isn’t obvious in the arid ‘scapes, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The flora and fauna that does call Atacama their home are very specialized in finding ways to thrive. On the smallest life scales, for some microbes that means living underground, which makes them very interesting organisms indeed.

In a new study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, the results of a mock-Mars-life-hunting rover campaign in the Atacama Desert’s core have been revealed.

The research was driven, in part, to develop techniques for robotic missions to the Red Planet that will seek out alien bacteria that may be holed up in an underground colony. Remember, Mars has the same land area as Earth, so there’s a lot of real estate to search for microscopic lifeforms. Sure, scientists are smart and can narrow down potentially-habitable regions that they can drop a life-seeking robot on, but once landed on that toxic soil, what kind of methodology should they use to look for these hypothetical bacteria? The Atacama Desert makes for a decent analog of Mars; it’s very dry and its soil is laced with toxic perchlorate salts, so if microbes on Mars bear any resemblance to the nature of microbes in the Atacama, scientists can take a stab at predicting their behavior and guide their Mars rovers to the most likely places where they might be hiding.

Researchers already know that bacterial life occupies even the harshest Atacama regions, but according to team leader Stephen Pointing, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, the microbes we are familiar with are common species that live on the surface, using sunlight for energy. But Pointing isn’t so interested in what’s on the surface; his rover is fitted with a drill and extraction system that can take samples of soil from underground. During the campaign, Pointing’s team made some compelling discoveries.

“We saw that with increasing depth the bacterial community became dominated by bacteria that can thrive in the extremely salty and alkaline soils,” he told me. “They in turn were replaced at depths down to 80 centimeters by a single specific group of bacteria that survive by metabolizing methane.”

Methane. Huh. That’s interesting.

These subsurface microbes are known to science — they have been found in deep mine shafts and other subterranean environments — but they’ve never been found living under the surface of the world’s most arid region. They’ve also fine-tuned their evolution to specifically adapt to this harsh environment. “The communities of bacteria that we discovered were remarkably lacking in complexity, and this likely reflects the extreme stress under which they develop,” said Pointing.

The biggest discovery made during this research was that the subsurface colonies of bacteria were very patchy, said Pointing, a factor that will have ramifications for the search for their Martian cousins. “The patchy nature of the colonization suggest that a rover would be faced with a ‘needle in a haystack’ scenario in the search for Martian bacteria,” he said.

Desert Planet Survivor

This research is a fascinating glimpse into how Earth-based environments are being used to better understand how alien bacteria may evolve in their native environments. But the desert-thriving, methane-munching bacteria of the Atacama may also inspire their name — should they be discovered one day.

Pointing explained: “The way we assign Latin names to bacteria is based on their evolutionary relationship to each other and we measure this using their genetic code. The naming of Martian bacteria would require a completely new set of Latin names at the highest level if Martian bacteria were a completely separate evolutionary lineage — that is they evolved from a different common ancestor to Earth bacteria in a “second genesis” event [and not related to Earth life via panspermia]. If we find truly “native” Martian bacteria I would love to name one, and call it Planeta-desertum superstes, which translates in Latin to ‘survivor on the desert planet.'”

So there we have it, an answer to my question about what our Martian neighbors might be called, if we find them: Planeta-desertum superstes, the desert planet survivor.

Read more about Pointing’s research in my HowStuffWorks article “Hunting for Martians in the Most Extreme Desert on Earth

Our Universe Is a Cosmic Mixologist Looking for the Recipe of Life

Creating the conditions of interstellar space in the lab has led to a sweet discovery

The Egg Nebula, as imaged by Hubble, is a protoplanetary nebula with a young star in its core [NASA/ESA]

What do you get if you combine water with methanol and then bombard the mix with radiation? It turns out that the resulting cocktail is where the building blocks for life are found. But these chemicals aren’t bubbling out of the puddles of primordial goo pooling on some alien planet; the cocktail shaker is the frigid depths of interstellar space and the mixologist is the universe.

As described in a new study published on Tuesday in Nature Communications, a team of NASA scientists took what they knew of interstellar space and recreated it in a laboratory experiment. Interstellar space may not seem like a place where the chemistry of life could gain a foothold, but given enough time and the right ingredients, chemical reactions do happen — albeit very slowly. And if there’s one thing the universe has it’s time, and we’re beginning to understand that the cosmos we reside in could be a vast organic experiment.

“The universe is an organic chemist,” said Scott Sandford, a senior scientist in the NASA Ames Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Laboratory and co-investigator of the study. “It has big beakers and lots of time — and the result is a lot of organic material, some of which is useful to life.” 

To see what chemistry might be going on in the void between the stars, the researchers simulated this extreme environment inside a vacuum chamber at Ames that was cooled to near-absolute zero. Inside, they placed an aluminum substance and then added the gaseous mixture of water vapor and methanol, a very common carbon-based molecule that is known to exist throughout our galaxy. Holding the aluminum at such low temperatures caused a frosty layer to form upon it. Then, they irradiated the substance with ultraviolet light — a form of radiation that is abundant in stellar nurseries, for example — and found that some interesting chemical reactions had occurred.

They discovered that a variety of sugar derivatives had formed on the substance — and one of those sugars was 2-deoxyribose. Yes, the same stuff you’d find in deoxyribonucleic acid. That’s the “D” in our DNA.

But this isn’t the first time an essential ingredient for life has been created in the lab while simulating the conditions of interstellar space. In 2009, the same team announced the discovery of uracil in their laboratory experiments — a key component of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is central to protein synthesis in living systems. Also, in 2016, a French group discovered the formation of ribose, the sugar found in RNA.

“For more than two decades we’ve asked ourselves if the chemistry we find in space can make the kinds of compounds essential to life. So far, we haven’t picked a single broad set of molecules that can’t be produced,” said Sandford in a NASA statement. 

Although these are significant discoveries that provide new insights to how and where the most basic ingredients for life may form, it’s a long way from helping us understand whether or not life is common throughout the universe. But it turns out that some of the coldest spaces in the cosmos could also be the most fertile environments for the formation of a range of chemicals that are essential for life on Earth. It’s not such a reach, then, to realize that the protoplanetary disks surrounding young stars will also contain these chemicals and, as planets form, these chemicals become an intrinsic ingredient in young planets, asteroids and comets. Over four billion years ago, when the planets condensed from our baby Sun’s nebulous surroundings, Earth may have formed with just the right abundance of molecules that form the backbone of DNA and RNA to kick-start the genesis of life on our planet. Or those ingredients were delivered here later in the frozen cores of ancient comets and asteroids.

The building blocks of life are probably everywhere, but what “spark” binds these chemicals in such a way that allows life to evolve? This question is probably well beyond our understanding for now, but it seems that if you give our Cosmic Mixologist enough time to concoct all the chemicals for life, life will eventually emerge from the cocktail.

Great Balls of ‘Space Mud’ May Have Built Earth and Delivered Life’s Ingredients

Artist’s impression of the molten surface of early Earth (NASA)

When imagining how our planet formed 4.6 billion years ago from the protoplanetary disk surrounding our sun, images of large pieces of marauding space rock slamming into the molten surface of our proto-Earth likely come to mind.

But this conventional model of planetary creation may be missing a small, yet significant, detail. Those massive space rocks may not have been the conventional solid asteroids — they might have been massive balls of space mud.

This strange detail of planetary evolution is described in a new study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) journal Science Advances and it kinda makes logical sense.

Using the wonderfully-named Mars and Asteroids Global Hydrology Numerical Model (or “MAGHNUM”), planetary scientists Phil Bland (Cornell University) and Bryan Travis (Planetary Science Institute) simulated the movement of material inside primordial carbonaceous chondrite asteroids — i.e. the earliest asteroids that formed from the sun’s protoplanetary disk that eventually went on to become the building blocks for Earth.

A simulated cross section of a 200-meter wide asteroid showing its internal temperature profile and convection currents (temperatures in Celsius). Credit: PSI

It turns out that these first asteroids weren’t cold and solid lumps of rock at all. By simulating the distribution of rock grains inside these asteroids, the researchers realized that the internal heat of the objects would have melted the icy volatiles inside, which then mixed with the fine dust particles. Convection would have then dominated a large portion of these asteroids, causing continuous mixing of water and dust. Like a child squishing a puddle of dirt to create sloppy “mud pies,” this convection would have formed a ball of, you guessed it, space mud.

Travis points out that “these bodies would have accreted as a high-porosity aggregate of igneous clasts and fine-grained primordial dust, with ice filling much of the pore space. Mud would have formed when the ice melted from heat released from decay of radioactive isotopes, and the resulting water mixed with fine-grained dust.”

In other words: balls of mud held together by mutual gravity, gently convected by the heat produced by the natural decay of radioactive materials.

Should this model hold up to further scrutiny, it has obvious implications for the genesis of life on Earth and could impact the study of exoplanets and their habitable potential. The ingredients for life on Earth originated in the primordial protoplanetary soup, but until now the assumption has been that the space rocks carrying water and other chemicals were solid and frozen. If they were in fact churning away in space as dynamic mud asteroids, they could have been the “pressure cookers” that delivered those ingredients to Earth’s surface.

So the next question would be: how did these exotic asteroids shape life on Earth?