Color Catalog of Icy Microbial Life Created

A Cornell University post doc has begun the first ever color catalog of microbial life from extreme frozen environments here on Earth.

IMAGE: With a color catalog based on Earth’s microbes, astronomers can begin to decipher the tint of life on distant, frozen exoplanets, as depicted in this artistic rendering. CREDIT: Jack Madden/Cornell University

Ice is good for a lot of reasons. Ice actually hosts a lot more life than one would expect, especially in microbial form. And now researchers have published a color catalog of those microbes and how they would appear from space in the journal Astrobiology, all to help with the search for life beyond Earth.

Lead author Lígia F. Coelho, soon to be a postdoc at Cornell University, collected samples of eighty different microorganisms in the frozen region of the Hudson Bay in Quebec. The samples came from ice cores as well as holes drilled in the ice to sample the water, and Coelho grew them in a lab for further analysis. She took measurements of the microbes to understand how they could collectively look through a telescope.

Coelho explains: On Earth, vibrant, biological colors in the Arctic represent signatures of life in small, frozen niches. The colors from organisms could dominate the whole surface of icy worlds. Frozen exoplanets are not lost causes. With upcoming telescopes, you could find the telltale signs of microbes — if you know what to look for. That’s why we’ve created this catalog.

It’s very likely that the first life found beyond Earth will be microbial, as microbes tend to exist in the wildest conditions and are more likely to be adapted to harsher environments such as space radiation. This new catalog is an excellent first step to being able to identify potential life in the future.

That doesn’t mean we will get the discovery right on the first try. Or even the second. Science is hard, folks.

More Information

Cornell University press release

Color Catalogue of Life in Ice: Surface Biosignatures on Icy Worlds,” Lígia F. Coelho et al., 2022 March 10, Astrobiology

This story was written for the Daily Space podcast/YouTube series. Want more news from myself, Dr. Pamela Gay, and Erik Madaus? Check out DailySpace.org.

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Planetary scientist, podcast host. Communication specialist for SETI Institute and Planetary Science Institute. Journalist on the Weekly Space Hangout.

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Beth Johnson

Beth Johnson

Planetary scientist, podcast host. Communication specialist for SETI Institute and Planetary Science Institute. Journalist on the Weekly Space Hangout.

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