Biological indicators are of great importance in the search for life beyond Earth.
Astronomers generally prefer chemicals like oxygen and methane.
Scientists say that nitrous oxide can also be an important biological signal.
The presence of certain chemical compounds in a planet’s atmosphere may indicate the existence of life. These compounds are called biosignatures. These include gases that are abundant on Earth today. Oxygen and methane have been extensively studied as biological markers, but few researchers have identified nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. In new research, scientists have shown how the inclusion of humic gas as a biological indicator is important. He showed that the presence of this gas could be attributed to the biological processes that produced it.
Error not including comic gas
Scientists at the University of California, Riverside suggest that humic gas is missing and should be added to astronomers’ list of essential chemicals to search for life on other planets around distant stars. Eddy Schwetterman, an astronomer in the university’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, says ignoring this gas could be a mistake.
Paradigm and simulation
In the study, published in the Astrophysical Journal, the researchers describe the resulting work and their paradigm in detail. For this, the researchers determined how much nitrous oxide would be produced by organisms on an Earth-like planet. Next, he created models that simulated planets around different stars.
Ideal tool for study and observation
From this, they discovered that observatories such as the James Webb Space Telescope could detect the amount of nitrous oxide from this planet. Schwetterman explained that star systems like TRAPPIST-1 are ideal for studying the atmospheres of rocky planets because they are so close and ideal for observation. There, levels of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane can be seen.
N2O in biological processes
Organisms can produce nitrous oxide (N2O) in several ways. Microorganisms continuously convert other nitrogenous substances into N2O in metabolic processes to produce useful cellular energy. Life continues to produce nitrous waste, which certain microorganisms convert into nitrates, Schwetterman said.
N2O in the atmosphere
Some bacteria in the oceans convert these nitrates into N2O which enters the atmosphere. At the same time, the presence of N2O in many situations does not ensure the presence of life and researchers have included such factors in their model. Like electricity, N2O is also produced, which suggests to astronomers that N2O may also be produced by abiotic weathering or geological processes.
N2O is difficult to identify.
At the same time, many researchers say that it is very difficult to identify it from such a distance. The researchers say their findings are based on today’s amount of N2O on Earth. And since N2O is not abundant on Earth itself, it would be very difficult to find it on other planets.
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First Publication: 06 October 2022, 11:57 IST