No, NASA photos are not proof that fungi are growing on Mars, sorry


Martian “blueberries” are rocky spheres that form on the surface of Mars.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

March is very in at present. NASA’s Perseverance rover is up there looking for life, and the agency Ingenuity Mars helicopter is perform daring aerial feats. But on Wednesday, Mars appeared in the news for all the wrong reasons. According to websites like the Daily Mail, scientists were making a pretty far-fetched claim: Mushrooms were alive and well on the Red Planet.

The first thought: Oh shit, here we are.

The “fungi on Mars and fungi on Venus” theory is a worn and debunked idea that pops up like clockwork about once a year. The headlines are certainly interesting: imagine if we found mushrooms on Mars or Venus! It would literally rewrite our ideas about life in the cosmos – but the articles rarely question the scientific evidence for the wild claims.

Part of me wants to let it slide because in some cases all ad is really good publicity, but it’s bad science and some websites have wrongly titled articles with “Scientists found evidence of growth fungi on Mars “when this is simply not the case.

So let’s pull the curtain back and explain what’s really going on (again!)

The ‘Space Tiger King’

At the center, or sometimes just to the side, of these outlandish claims is a man named Rhawn Gabriel Joseph.

According to his “” webpage, Joseph is an outdated neuroscientist who made major contributions to the field of neuroplasticity in the 1970s. Joseph has, for more than a decade, published life claims about other planets on his website and in pseudo-scientific journals he oversees.

His claims sometimes reach the big leagues and spread through the press, but for the most part they have not landed in legitimate scientific journals or been reviewed by other space science experts.

Until 2019, when Joseph’s claims really hit the big leagues. In November of that year, Joseph obtained an article through peer review and in the journal Astrophysics & Space Science. Last June, I published an article on Joseph and these claims, which ultimately led the journal to withdraw Joseph’s article, stating that “the article offers insufficient critical appraisal of the material presented and the literature cited, and fails to provide a solid basis for the speculative statements made in the article which, in their opinion, invalidate the conclusions drawn. “

But on Wednesday, Joseph’s claims were published in another journal, known as Advances in Microbiology.

Truffle Day

Advances in Microbiology is a relatively obscure journal published by Scientific Research Publishing, which is headquartered in China, and which has previously been surprised for republishing scientific papers, according to Nature. He has been accused of being a predatory editor, charging scientists a fee to be published in his journals without checking the quality of the articles submitted.

The new article, dubbed “Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images” and available on ResearchGate, takes up some of the old arguments for life on Mars, using inaccurate methodology to draw its conclusions. For the most part, Joseph and his co-authors use images obtained by NASA rovers and draw red lines and arrows to highlight features that they believe correspond to fungal growth.

“To claim that fungi grow all over Mars is an extraordinary claim that requires better evidence than an analysis of photographic morphology by a known crank which claimed, based on the same type of analysis, that it saw skull fields on Mars, ”says Paul Myers, a developmental biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who has followed Joseph’s work in the past.

One experiment, carried out by the authors, is to analyze the size and movement of “spherical specimens” in the article. He regularly refers to Joseph’s earlier work as evidence of his conclusions. The team suggests that it “would be surprising” if there was no life on Mars – but that’s not true. We have mountains of data showing that the conditions on Mars are not conducive to life as we know it. Could fungi circumvent these conditions? Maybe, but the evidence is thin.

After being alerted to the new paper on Wednesday, I sent emails to the associate editors of Advances in Microbiology, asking for clarification on the peer review process. They did not respond to requests for comment.

I also emailed members of the Editorial Board listed on the SCIRP website, including Jian Li, a microbiologist at Monash University in Australia. He says he has not been a member of the journal’s editorial board “for at least five to six years” and has not covered any of the journal’s articles.

Bad science

One of the biggest problems in publishing Joseph’s claims is allowing bad science to get to the public.

The pandemic has shown us that disinformation can be harmful, eroding trust in science, researchers and institutes. We have seen, time and time again, how spurious reports can go viral and then be used to suggest that scientists reverse previous claims. To be clear, there is no backflip here. The majority of scientists agree that conditions on the surface of Mars are not conducive to the proliferation of fungi.

“All the available evidence suggests that the surface of Mars is not conducive to life,” says Brendan Burns, an astrobiologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

When the publications promote the unscientific “mushroom on Mars” theory without criticism, it can be damaging to scientists like Burns and organizations like NASA, which attempt to find legitimate signs of life on other planets.

If we were to find life elsewhere in the solar system, it would not first appear in the journal Advances in Microbiology. Readers should remain skeptical of any mushroom claims they see – especially those promulgated by a single group of scientists.

And look, I’m totally happy to be wrong here. If it turns out it’s a fungus on Mars, I’ll be the first to say “we got drunk.”

I hope NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is rolling along an ancient Martian lake bed, might be able to find the first signs that life once existed on the red planet. The Chinese rover that will soon be delivered, Zhurong, could also help to understand if Mars was home to extraterrestrial life forms. We will have to wait and see.

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