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Sun Sep 13, 2020, 04:12 PM

Peer-reviewed paper expected Monday Sept 14th on molecules claimed to point to life on Venus

earthsky.org published this, then withdrew it (it refers to the paper - presumably they got details, but didn't obey the embargo), but it's in the Google cache - others are talking about it too:

Could there really be life on Earth’s closest neighbour, Venus? An international team of astronomers have found tentative but compelling evidence for microbial life in the planet’s atmosphere.

...
The exciting findings come from scientists in the US and UK, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cardiff University, University of Manchester and others. Jane Greaves of Cardiff University lead the study.

The new peer-reviewed research paper was published in Nature Astronomy today, September 14, 2020. The Royal Astronomical Society also provided an online press briefing for journalists via Zoom, with three of the researchers to discuss the results, as well as issuing its own news release.

It should be noted that this is not quite yet proof of life on Venus, but the researchers make a compelling case.
...
What did the researchers find?

Simply put, a gas that shouldn’t be there, and on Earth is considered a conclusive biosignature: phosphine, a very stinky gas. As far as scientists know, there are only two ways to produce it, either artificially in a lab, or by certain kinds of microbes that live in oxygen-free environments. Since it is rather unlikely there any alien labs on Venus, that leaves microbes.

https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache%3AdUWrpm80WHsJ:https://earthsky.org/%3Fp%3D343883

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Response to muriel_volestrangler (Original post)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 04:24 PM

1. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof.

The existence of the toxic gas phosphine is rather weak evidence, particularly on a planet with temperatures at which lead is a liquid. If nothing else, these temperatures would tend to racemize chiral molecules, and chirality is believed - correctly I think - to be the truest signature of life - but even it is not absolute - chirality exists in abiotic systems.

A more likely origin for phosphine is connected with the extreme temperatures on the planet.

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Response to NNadir (Reply #1)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 04:30 PM

2. That would have been my thought - extreme temperatures and a whole atmosphere to play in

could produce all kinds of things, but peer review in a reputable journal should mean there's a decent argument put forth.

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Response to muriel_volestrangler (Reply #2)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 04:48 PM

4. Peer review is not an ironclad process. If it were, retractions would not occur.

Science is one of the most reputable journals in the world. I subscribe to it because it is so credible.

In 2011, Simon-Wolff published a paper in that journal claiming that a form of DNA existed in which Arsenate replaced phosphate:

A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus (Wolfe-Simon et al., Science, Vol. 332, Issue 6034, pp. 1163-1166 (2011)).

I recall being very excited, because it was published in Science.

It didn't pan out all that well.

Absence of Detectable Arsenate in DNA from Arsenate-Grown GFAJ-1 Cells (Rosemary Redfield, et al., Science, Vol. 337, Issue 6093, pp. 470-473)

Science is not easy; it is hard. Even very good scientists can jump to wrong conclusions and delude themselves.

Martin Fleischmann was an outstanding well respected electrochemist, highly published in reputable journals. That did not imply that cold fusion was a "thing."

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Response to NNadir (Reply #1)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 05:52 PM

6. Given that Venus' atmosphere is highly oxidized, phosphine sounds very improbable.

I'm expecting some misinterpretation of spectroscopic data to turn up. Just what nature that would take, I can't imagine, especially since there's no details of what they were looking at.

Interestingly, the link is to a cached copy of an article at earthsky.org which no longer appears at that site. Did it get pulled ??

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Response to eppur_se_muova (Reply #6)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 06:03 PM

7. The Earth, and I suspect many other planets, may trend one way overall, but localized conditions...

...can be quite different.

I believe I've read somewhere recently - it's not high on my radar screen - that Venus is thought to be tectonically active, like Earth.

If so, there are surely localized areas that are highly reduced, and not necessarily by life. Earth's core is thought to be reduced, even though it has an oxidizing atmosphere.

To be honest, phosphorous chemistry has not been a major focus of my life. When I was a kid, I was interested in some issues connected with organic synthesis, and used to dehydrate my THF over P2O5, or chlorinate or brominate carboxylic acid with phosphorous halides.

Mostly these days, I'm interested in its analytical chemistry, if at all, and then generally in its proteomic importance and/or genetic importance. That generally comes down to straight up phosphate/phosphoester chemistry. (I did work briefly on an interesting rare disease that involve physiological pyrophosphate, but it wasn't all that big a deal.)

But I understand, from a quick Google Scholar Search, that phosphine can be generated from phosphides exposed to acid. It is conceivable that ancient phosphide deposits exist somewhere in the planet and have been exposed recently to its very acidic atmosphere.

Or it may well be, as you suggest, a function of misinterpretation of spectroscopic data. I would be very, very, very surprised if the stated supposition proved to be viable.

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Response to eppur_se_muova (Reply #6)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 06:13 PM

9. Since it says "today, September 14, 2020", I think it's a pre-written article they published

by mistake (I found it with a Google search, after seeing others talking about this, and then saw it was no longer available on the site).

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Response to muriel_volestrangler (Original post)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 04:44 PM

3. It's odd as Venus is so massively inhospitable

to our life here.

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Response to muriel_volestrangler (Original post)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 04:49 PM

5. Wait, that's where women come from, right?

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Response to muriel_volestrangler (Original post)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 06:04 PM

8. OK, something's not right here ....

To find phosphine, or any of the thousands of gases that life could produce and release into an atmosphere, we need spectra. These are a kind of molecular fingerprint that can be detected in the light from these planets. At the moment, we have spectra for only about 4 percent of all possible biosignature gases. We have no way of detecting any of the remaining molecules on a potential alien biosphere.

I am working on obtaining these missing spectra, as fast as I can, but it is difficult. Experiments are expensive, often dangerous, and hard to extrapolate to strange environments. Theoretical simulations are a great alternative but require a lot of work and enormous computer power. Getting spectra for phosphine alone took me four years, and it would take me another 60,000 years to repeat that process for those thousands of biosignatures without spectra.

These excerpts are from an editorial by the lead researcher, who seems to have concluded, apparently prematurely, that the spectrum of PH3 would be a definite signature for life, despite numerous cautions such as the following, from the same editorial:
We invest so much time and money improving our telescopes and choosing the best planetary targets, but we forget that we may not be ready to interpret the incredible data we will get from these alien atmospheres. We are still lacking fundamental knowledge, not least of which is our understanding of biosignature gases and their spectra.

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/when-we-finally-find-aliens-they-might-smell-terrible/


(Bold added by me.)

I'm starting to think this is going to end up like the report of arsenic-metabolizing microbes.

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Response to eppur_se_muova (Reply #8)

Sun Sep 13, 2020, 07:34 PM

10. I must be missing a bit ...

What exactly is not right?

The blog entry you quote says it took him four years to figure out the spectra for phosphine. I have no idea why it would take so long, but after four years of work I'd guess he didn't just sit on the info. So now others also know what phosphine spectra looks like. And the OP talks about the (possible) discovery of phosphine molecules in Venus’ atmosphere. So ... where exactly is the conflict?

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Response to muriel_volestrangler (Original post)

Mon Sep 14, 2020, 05:56 AM

11. Link to RAS press briefing live at 11:00 AM

&feature=youtu.be


This briefing may be unrelated but occurs as the embargo on the "Nature" paper expires.

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Response to muriel_volestrangler (Original post)

Mon Sep 14, 2020, 02:42 PM

12. A seen at high altitude over the Pacific and Atlantic,

perhaps phosphorus laden dust is reacting with lightning in that temperate zone in the Venusian sky.
But if there are critters in Venus' sky, I hope they name them "Ymir".

https://gwangipedia.fandom.com/wiki/Ymir

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