RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Several plants and microbes release gases that help them clean out toxins, with broccoli being one. Scientists are now turning their attention to these gases to explore their connection to life in space.
Upon release of these gases, there’s a chance that they convert into toxic compounds within the air. A processed called methylation stops this progression, making alterations to the compounds that allow them to be safely dispersed into the atmosphere. University of California-Riverside researchers now think that if these gases can be found on other planets, then that may be a sign that there’s life out in space, since this process occurs through release by living things.
“Methylation is so widespread on Earth, we expect life anywhere else to perform it. Most cells have mechanisms for expelling harmful substances,” explains UCR planetary scientist Michaela Leung in a university release.
Could methyl bromide be the key to finding aliens?
Methyl bromide has been a central target for research in this field, especially in Leung’s study, published in the Astrophysical Journal, since it acts as a fantastic potential indicator of life. It remains in the atmosphere for a short period of time, allowing scientists to draw conclusions based on the premise that if the gas is found, it wasn’t made long ago and is likely being continuously emitted. Moreover, this gas is more likely to be released by a living thing rather than one like methane, which can be emitted by volcanoes.
While this can be a great indicator of life outside of Earth, it’s a bit difficult to detect methyl bromide on Earth despite it being an incredibly common gas. The intensity of the Sun’s UV light makes it such an arduous task, as the radiation catalyzes a bunch of reactions that end up destroying the gas.
However, the study discovered that methyl bromide would be more easily detectable around an M dwarf star rather than the star of our solar system. These types of stars are far cooler than the Sun, much smaller, and therefore emit fewer UV rays that lead to undesirable reactions.
“An M dwarf host star increases the concentration and detectability of methyl bromide by four orders of magnitude compared to the sun,” says Leung.
This is a great discovery for astronomers as these stars are extremely common and therefore will be of great use in research. With such promising factors at play, Leung and the team are confident that biologists in the field will start looking to methyl bromide for future experiments and in planning for telescope enhancement. The research team also plans on investigating other methylated gases and measuring their potential as the search for life in space races on.