September 10, 2015

Oxygen is not Definitive Evidence of Life on Habitable Extrasolar Planets

Figure. Photocatalytic Reaction of Titanium Oxide
Abiotic oxygen can be produced from water in the presence of titanium oxide and an
electron acceptor under UV light. Our report suggests that this photocatalytic reaction
can supply significant amount of abiotic oxygen on habitable extrasolar planets.

(September 10, 2015)  The Earth’s atmosphere contains oxygen because plants continuously produce it through photosynthesis. This abundant supply of oxygen allows life forms like animals to flourish. Therefore, oxygen had been thought to be an essential biomarker for life on extrasolar planets. But now, a research assistant professor Norio Narita of the Astrobiology Center of NINS, which was founded in April 2015, and an associate professor Shigeyuki Masaoka, of the Institute of Molecular Science of NINS, have presented a novel hypothesis that it could be possible for planets to have large quantities of abiotic (non-biologically produced) oxygen. This study is a good example of interdisciplinary studies that combine knowledge from different fields of science to promote astrobiology in the search for life on extrasolar planets. The study is published in Scientific Reports on Sep 10, 2015.

Until now, it had been thought that if a planet has oxygen, that must mean that some form of plants are producing it through photosynthesis. Therefore, it had been assumed that when searching for signs of life on habitable extrasolar planets, the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere could be considered a definitive biomarker. However, non-biological chemical reactions can also affect atmospheric compositions of extrasolar planets. Now, the research team led by Dr. Narita has shown that, abiotic oxygen produced by the photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide, which is known to be abundant on the surfaces of terrestrial planets, meteorolites, and the Moon in the Solar System, cannot be discounted.