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Astrobiology. 2003 Fall;3(3):471-86.

Biosignatures of early earths.

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Astronomy and Physics Division, Office of Space Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., 20546, USA.


A major goal of NASA's Origins Program is to find habitable planets around other stars and determine which might harbor life. Determining whether or not an extrasolar planet harbors life requires an understanding of what spectral features (i.e., biosignatures) might result from life's presence. Consideration of potential biosignatures has tended to focus on spectral features of gases in Earth's modern atmosphere, particularly ozone, the photolytic product of biogenically produced molecular oxygen. But life existed on Earth for about 1(1/2) billion years before the buildup of atmospheric oxygen. Inferred characteristics of Earth's earliest biosphere and studies of modern microbial ecosystems that share some of those characteristics suggest that organosulfur compounds, particularly methanethiol (CH(3)SH, the sulfur analog of methanol), may have been biogenic products on early Earth. Similar production could take place on extrasolar Earth-like planets whose biota share functional chemical characteristics with Earth life. Since methanethiol and related organosulfur compounds (as well as carbon dioxide) absorb at wavelengths near or overlapping the 9.6-microm band of ozone, there is potential ambiguity in interpreting a feature around this wavelength in an extrasolar planet spectrum.

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