Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Is There Such A Thing As A Biosignature?

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
Astrobiology via PubMed
January 16, 2024
Filed under , ,
Is There Such A Thing As A Biosignature?
Technology now under development could reveal signs of possible life – biosignatures – in the atmospheres of exoplanets. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lizbeth B. De La Torre

The concept of a biosignature is widely used in astrobiology to suggest a link between some observation and a biological cause, given some context. The term itself has been defined and used in several ways in different parts of the scientific community involved in the search for past or present life on Earth and beyond.

With the ongoing acceleration in the search for life in distant time and/or deep space, there is a need for clarity and accuracy in the formulation and reporting of claims. Here, we critically review the biosignature concept(s) and the associated nomenclature in light of several problems and ambiguities emphasized by recent works. One worry is that these terms and concepts may imply greater certainty than is usually justified by a rational interpretation of the data.

A related worry is that terms such as “biosignature” may be inherently misleading, for example, because the divide between life and non-life-and their observable effects-is fuzzy. Another worry is that different parts of the multidisciplinary community may use non-equivalent or conflicting definitions and conceptions, leading to avoidable confusion.

This review leads us to identify a number of pitfalls and to suggest how they can be circumvented. In general, we conclude that astrobiologists should exercise particular caution in deciding whether and how to use the concept of biosignature when thinking and communicating about habitability or life. Concepts and terms should be selected carefully and defined explicitly where appropriate.

This would improve clarity and accuracy in the formulation of claims and subsequent technical and public communication about some of the most profound and important questions in science and society. With this objective in mind, we provide a checklist of questions that scientists and other interested parties should ask when assessing any reported detection of a “biosignature” to better understand exactly what is being claimed.

Christophe Malaterre, Inge Loes Ten Kate, Mickael Baqué, Vinciane Debaille, John Lee Grenfell, Emmanuelle J Javaux, Nozair Khawaja, Fabian Klenner, Yannick J Lara, Sean McMahon, Keavin Moore, Lena Noack, C H Lucas Patty, Frank Postberg

PMID: 37962841
DOI: 10.1089/ast.2023.0042

Astrobiology. 2023 Nov;23(11):1213-1227. doi: 10.1089/ast.2023.0042.


Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻