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Phospine and possible signs of life in Venus's clouds: expert comment

Astronomers have announced the detection of the gas phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, a gas generally produced by microbes in oxygen-free environments, suggesting that there could be life in the planet's atmosphere. The idea that Venus could host life is not as bizarre as it sounds says Dr Tom Louden from the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick.

Dr Louden said: “This is an exciting piece of research. It is by no means definitive proof of life, but it is an intriguing hint that something interesting and unexplained is happening in the upper atmosphere of Venus, and it begs for further investigation.

“The upper atmosphere of Venus was surprisingly already thought to perhaps be one of the more habitable places in the solar system outside of Earth; the temperature and pressure are both clement, and there is liquid water in the clouds - albeit in highly concentrated sulphuric acid droplets. It's a harsh environment, but it's not impossible life could have evolved to survive in it. While nowhere near as extreme, there are ‘acid loving’ bacteria on Earth

“The presence of large quantities of Phosphine in the atmosphere is a big surprise, and was not predicted by any of our standard atmosphere models. The researchers in their work believe they can rule out all known non-biological mechanisms for producing Phosphine in the quantities seen, and suggest living organisms, microbes, as the means by which it is produced. We do know that bacteria on Earth living in Oxygen-free environments on Earth produce Phosphine, and the upper atmosphere of Venus is Oxygen-free and a comfortable temperature for bacteria like that. This does not exclude some very weird chemistry that we haven't seen before, so it is not definite proof, but life is absolutely a possible solution, and future missions will be able to tell for sure.

“If it is microbes, it would be the most important scientific question of our lifetimes to study them, to figure out if there was a second origin of life, or if we have a shared history. The Panspermia theory suggests that it is possible that life was transported from Earth to Venus, or vice versa - it is a possibility that life started on Venus and was only later transmitted here.”

14 September 2020


Peter Thorley
Media Relations Manager (Warwick Medical School and Department of Physics)


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