You are on page 1of 4


A biosignature is any substance - such as an element, isotope, or molecule, or phenomenon that provides scientific evidence of past or present life.[1][2] Measurable attributes of life include
its complex physical and chemical structures and also its utilization of free energy and the
production of biomass and wastes. Due to its unique characteristics, a biosignature can be
interpreted as having been produced by living organisms, however, it is important that they not
be considered definitive because there is no way of knowing in advance which ones are universal
to life and which ones are unique to the peculiar circumstances of life on Earth.[3]

In geomicrobiology

Electron micrograph of microfossils from a sediment core obtained by the Deep Sea Drilling
The ancient record on Earth provides an opportunity to see what geochemical signatures are
produced by microbial life and how these signatures are preserved over geologic time. Some
related disciplines such as geochemistry, geobiology, and geomicrobiology often use
biosignatures to determine if living organisms are or were present in a sample. These possible
biosignatures include: (a) microfossils and stromatolites; (b) molecular structures (biomarkers)
and isotopic compositions of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen in organic matter; (c) multiple sulfur
and oxygen isotope ratios of minerals; and (d) abundance relationships and isotopic compositions
of redox sensitive metals (e.g., Fe, Mo, Cr, and rare earth elements).[4][5]
For example, the particular fatty acids measured in a sample can indicate which types of bacteria
and archaea live in that environment. Another example are the long-chain fatty alcohols with
more than 23 atoms that are produced by planktonic bacteria.[6] When used in this sense,
geochemists often prefer the term biomarker. An other example is the presence of straight-chain
lipids in the form of alkanes, alcohols an fatty acids with 20-36 carbon atoms in soils or

sediments. Peat deposits are an indication of originating from the epicuticular wax of higher
Life processes may produce a range of biosignatures such as nucleic acids, lipids, proteins,
amino acids, kerogen-like material and various morphological features that are detectable in
rocks and sediments.[7] Microbes often interact with geochemical processes, leaving features in
the rock record indicative of biosignatures. For example, bacterial micrometer-sized pores in
carbonate rocks resemble inclusions under transmitted light, but have distinct size, shapes and
patterns (swirling or dendritic) and are distributed differently from common fluid inclusions.[8] A
potential biosignature is a phenomenon that may have been produced by life, but for which
alternate abiotic origins may also be possible.

In astrobiology

Some researchers suggested that these microscopic structures on the Martian ALH84001
meteorite could be fossilized bacteria.[9][10]
Astrobiological exploration is founded upon the premise that biosignatures encountered in space
will be recognizable as extraterrestrial life. The usefulness of a biosignature is determined, not
only by the probability of life creating it, but also by the improbability of nonbiological (abiotic)
processes producing it.[11] An example of such a biosignature might be complex organic
molecules and/or structures whose formation is virtually unachievable in the absence of life. For
example, some categories of biosignatures can include the following: cellular and extracellular
morphologies, biogenic substance in rocks, bio-organic molecular structures, chirality, biogenic
minerals, biogenic stable isotope patterns in minerals and organic compounds, atmospheric
gases, and remotely detectable features on planetary surfaces, such as photosynthetic pigments,
Biosignatures need not be chemical, however, and can also be suggested by a distinctive
magnetic biosignature.[12] Another possible biosignature might be morphology since the shape
and size of certain objects may potentially indicate the presence of past or present life. For
example, microscopic magnetite crystals in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 were the longestdebated of several potential biosignatures in that specimen because it was believed until recently
that only bacteria could create crystals of their specific shape. However, anomalous features
discovered that are "possible biosignatures" for life forms would be investigated as well. Such
features constitute a working hypothesis, not a confirmation of detection of life. Concluding that
evidence of an extraterrestrial life form (past or present) has been discovered, requires proving

that a possible biosignature was produced by the activities or remains of life.[1] For example, the
possible biomineral studied in the Martiam ALH84001 meteorite includes putative microbial
fossils, tiny rock-like structures whose shape was a potential biosignature because it resembled
known bacteria. Most scientists ultimately concluded that these were far too small to be
fossilized cells. A consensus that has emerged from these discussions, and is now seen as a
critical requirement, is the demand for further lines of evidence in addition to any morphological
data that supports such extraordinary claims.[1]
Scientific observations include the possible identification of biosignatures through indirect
observation. For example, electromagnetic information through infrared radiation telescopes,
radio-telescopes, space telescopes, etc.[13][14] From this discipline, the hypothetical
electromagnetic radio signatures that SETI scans for would be a biosignature, since a message
from intelligent aliens would certainly demonstrate the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Over billions of years, the processes of life on a planet would create a fog of chemicals unlike
anything that could form in an ordinary chemical equilibrium.[15] For example, large amounts of
oxygen and small amounts of methane are generated by life on Earth. The presence of methane
in the atmosphere of Mars indicates that there must be an active source on the planet, as it is an
unstable gas. Furthermore, current photochemical models cannot explain the presence of
methane in the atmosphere of Mars and its reported rapid variations in space and time. Neither
its fast appearance nor disappearance can be explained yet.[16] To rule out a biogenic origin for
the methane, a future probe or lander hosting a mass spectrometer will be needed, as the isotopic
proportions of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in methane could distinguish between a biogenic and nonbiogenic origin.[17]

The Viking missions to Mars

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander

The Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s conducted the only experiments to date which were
explicitly designed to look for biosignatures on another planet. Each of the two Viking landers
carried three life-detection experiments which looked for signs of metabolism, however, the
results were declared 'inconclusive'.[7][18][19][20][21]

Future missions such as Mars Science Laboratory and ExoMars will attempt to detect habitable
environments on Mars as well as biosignatures.[21][22]