In recent years, researchers concluded that the existence of a particular gas which is toxic to life on Earth could indicate the presence of alien life in the universe. The gas in question is phosphine.
What is phosphine, the gas toxic to life on Earth?
Phosphine is, quantum astrochemist and science communicator Clara Sousa-Silva characterizes it, an ‘extremely flammable, incredibly toxic, outrageously foul-smelling molecule,’ but it is like that only on Earth. At the Astrobiology Science Conference in Seattle, the astrochemist talked about phosphine as a way aliens communicate their presence in the universe.
Phosphine can be found in limited quantities all over Earth as it is incredibly reactive in combination with oxygen. That is the reason organisms on this planet supply it in environments that oxygen is absent. The gas is so toxic that it was even utilized as a chemical weapon in the Great War. We can find it in sewage, swamps, the intestinal tracts of fish and human babies, in paddy fields and penguin feces.
Because these places are oxygen-free, phosphine doesn’t produce too much harm. Humans also provide phosphine, as it is used in insecticides and in the manufacturing of methamphetamines.
Phosphine in space could indicate the presence of alien life
Because phosphine reacts better in oxygen-free environments than in environments where oxygen is ubiquitous, the gas could easily be created by alien life forms present in outer-space as there is no oxygen.
Therefore, together with her team, Clara Sousa-Silva tried to find traces of the toxic gas on different planets outside our Solar System. They replicated the production process of phosphine and how it could survive on these exoplanets. The results were encouraging as the team discovered that under specific circumstances, the presence of the gas could be revealed by calculating in what way light interacts with it.
As any noticeable quantities of phosphine could only be produced by life (lighting and volcanoes are able to create phosphine, but in such small quantities that it is not perceivable), if any traces of this gas are found in the universe, that could only mean that life is possible on other planets outside our Solar System.
Even though the possibility of finding phosphine on exoplanets is quite small, that doesn’t mean that scientists should stop exploring this possibility. Clara Sousa-Silva is aware that phosphine is one of the 16,000 molecules that could indicate the presence of life in the universe, but that doesn’t make her any less determined to find it in the big, dark space.
Jasmine holds a Master’s in Journalism from Ryerson University in Toronto and writes professionally in a broad variety of genres. She has worked as a senior manager in public relations and communications for major telecommunication companies, and is the former Deputy Director for Media Relations with the Modern Coalition. Jasmine writes primarily in our LGBTTQQIAAP and Science section.