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Friday, May 7, 2021


There's a paper in the May 2021 issue of Advances in Microbology 11(5), “Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images” (full text [PDF] available for download from this link), which shows some intriguing images, both from orbit and rovers on the surface, that show striking similarities to fungal forms on Earth. Here is the abstract.

Fungi thrive in radiation intense environments. Sequential photos document that fungus-like Martian specimens emerge from the soil and increase in size, including those resembling puffballs (Basidiomycota). After obliteration of spherical specimens by the rover wheels, new sphericals--some with stalks--appeared atop the crests of old tracks. Sequences document that thousands of black arctic “araneiforms” grow up to 300 meters in the Spring and disappear by Winter; a pattern repeated each Spring and which may represent massive colonies of black fungi, mould, lichens, algae, methanogens and sulfur reducing species. Black fungi-bacteria-like specimens also appeared atop the rovers. In a series of photographs over three days (Sols) white amorphous specimens within a crevice changed shape and location then disappeared. White protoplasmic-mycelium-like-tendrils with fruiting-body-like appendages form networks upon and above the surface; or increase in mass as documented by sequential photographs. Hundreds of dimpled donut-shaped “mushroom-like” formations approximately 1mm in size are adjacent or attached to these mycelium-like complexes. Additional sequences document that white amorphous masses beneath rock-shelters increase in mass, number, or disappear and that similar white-fungus-like specimens appeared inside an open rover compartment. Comparative statistical analysis of a sample of 9 spherical specimens believed to be fungal “puffballs” photographed on Sol 1145 and 12 specimens that emerged from beneath the soil on Sol 1148 confirmed the nine grew significantly closer together as their diameters expanded and some showed evidence of movement. Cluster analysis and a paired sample ‘t’ test indicates a statistically significant size increase in the average size ratio over all comparisons between and within groups (P = 0.011). Statistical comparisons indicates that arctic “araneiforms” significantly increased in length in parallel following an initial growth spurt. Although similarities in morphology are not proof of life, growth, movement, and changes in shape and location constitute behavior and support the hypothesis there is life on Mars.

Here are some photos from the paper pointed out by Robin Hanson, with his comments.

Extraordinary claims…” and all that, but if any of this is correct, this is one of the most stunning scientific oversights in the last century, given that we have been observing Mars from orbit and the surface since 1976. If some of all of this (in particular, the gunk seeming to grow on the rovers) turns out to be contamination by terrestrial organisms which prove viable on Mars, it indicates that NASA's “planetary protection” standards (“maximum of 300,000 spores per spacecraft and 300 spores per square meter”) may have been “good enough for government work” but not for a universe in which “life finds a way”.

Posted at May 7, 2021 11:49