The Search for Life on Mars and Methanogenic Life Forms
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The Search for Life on Mars and Methanogenic Life Forms

EarthÂ’s atmospheric methane can be detected from space, using special instruments. If life forms exists on Mars, it is plausible that some of them might use methanogenesis for energy.

Methanogenic microorganisms produce the gas CH4 (methane). On Earth, the substrates usually are H2 and CO2 both of which are gases at standard temperature and pressure. In the process of synthesizing methane, the carbon atom is changed from its most oxidized state (in CO2) to its most reduced state (in CH4) and energy is produced, energy which the organisms use to make food and cell material. Here is the overall reaction:

4H2 + CO2 CH4 + 2H2O

For methanogenic organisms, the methane is a waste product, released into the atmosphere, just as CO2 is released as waste by humans. Earth’s atmosphere thus contains some methane, although compared the concentration of nitrogen and oxygen, the levels of methane in our atmosphere is very very tiny. Even so, Earth’s atmospheric methane can be detected from space, using special instruments.

If life forms exists on Mars, it is plausible that some of them might use methanogenesis for energy. It is possible that the gas released during the Viking Labeled Release Experiment (LR) was CH4 rather than CO2, but this is not the only reason why a Martian version of methanogen may inhabit the Red Planet. In 2004 a European Space Agency (ESA) probe, Mars Express, detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. Although volcanic activity is a possible non-biological source of methane, there is no evidence for contemporary volcanic activity on Mars. On the other hand, Mars Express also detected trace amounts of HCHO (formaldehyde). Formaldehyde is an intermediate of methanogenesis, a compound produced along the way during the biosynthesis of methane from H2 and CO2. It cannot be made through volcanic activity. ESA plans to continue to study the Martian atmosphere and scientists in both ESA and NASA plan additional probes in the near future to confirm the Mars Express findings. But if it turns out that the Martian atmosphere contains methane with a sprinkling of formadehyde, it would mean that methanogenic microorganisms are native to Mars.

If we find that microorganisms exist currently on Mars, or that fossils exist indicating that life was at least present on the planet in the past, we may wish to send teams of astronaut-scientists, although currently no such program has yet been initiated or authorized. What seems certain however, is that when humans do travel to Mars, they must do so as a species, as citizens of the Earth, not as representatives of one country or another.

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