Getting Real About the Oxygen Biosignature

Oxygen, which makes up about 21 percent of the Earth atmosphere, has been embraced as the best biosignature for life on faraway exoplanets. New research shows that detecting distant life via the oxygen biosignature is not so straight-forward, though it probably remains the best show we have. (NASA)

I remember the first time I heard about the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and how could and would let us know whether life was present below.

The key was oxygen or its light-modified form, ozone.  Because both oxygen and ozone molecules bond so quickly with other molecules — think rust or iron oxide on Mars, silicon dioxide in the Earth’s crust — it was said that oxygen could only be present in large and detectable quantities if there was a steady and massive source of free oxygen on the planet.

On Earth, this of course is the work of photosynthesizers such as planets, algae and cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen as a byproduct.  No other abiotic, or non-biological, ways were known at the time to produce substantial amounts of atmospheric oxygen, so it seemed that an oxygen signal from afar would be a pretty sure sign of life.

But with the fast growth of the field of exoplanet atmospheres and the very real possibility of having technology available in the years ahead that could measure the components of those atmospheres, scientists have been busy modelling exoplanet formations, chemistry and their atmospheres.

One important goal has been to search for non-biological ways to produce large enough amounts of atmospheric oxygen that might fool us into thinking that life has been found below.

And in recent years, scientists have succeeded in poking holes in the atmospheric oxygen-means-life scenario.

Oxygen bonds quickly with many other molecules. That means has to be resupplied regularly to be present as O2 in an atmosphere . On Earth, O is mostly a product of biology, but elsewhere it might be result of non-biological processes. Here is an image of oxygen bubbles in water.

Especially researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) have come up with numerous ways that exoplanets atmospheres can be filled (and constantly refilled) with oxygen that was never part of plant or algal or bacteria photo-chemistry.

In other words, they found potential false positives for atmospheric oxygen as a biosignature, to the dismay of many exoplanet scientists.

In part because she and her own team were involved in some of these oxygen false-positive papers, VPL director Victoria Meadows set out to review, analyze and come to some conclusions about what had become the oxygen-biosignature problem.

The lengthy paper (originally planned for 6 pages but ultimately 34 pages because research from so many disciplines was coming in) was published last month in the journal Astrobiology.  It seeks to both warn researchers about the possibilities of biosignature false-positives based on oxygen detection, and then it assures them that there are ways around the obstacles.

“There was this view in the community that oxygen could only be formed by photosynthesis, and that no other process could make O2,”  Meadows told me.  “It was a little simplistic.  We now see the rich complexity of what we are looking at, and are thinking about the evolutionary paths of these planets.


Artist’s impression of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b, which orbits the red dwarf star GJ 1132.  Earlier this year, astronomers managed to detect the atmosphere of this Earth-sized planet and have determined that water and methane are likely prevalent in the atmosphere.  (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy)

“What I see is a maturing of the field.  We have models that show plausible ways for oxygen to be produced without biology, but that doesn’t mean that oxygen is no longer an important biosignature.

“It is very important.  But it has to be seen and understood in the larger context of what else is happening on the planet and its host star.”

Before moving forward, perhaps we should look back a bit at the history of oxygen on Earth.

For substantial parts of our planet’s history there was only minimal oxygen in the atmosphere, and life survived in an anaerobic environment.  When exactly oxygen went from a small percentage of the atmosphere to 21 percent of the atmosphere is contested, but there is broader agreement about the source of the O2 in the atmosphere.  The source was photosynthesis, most importantly coming from cyanobacteria in the oceans.

As far back as four billion years ago, photosynthesis occurred on Earth based on the capturing of the energy of near infrared light by sulfur-rich organisms, but it did not involve the release of oxygen as a byproduct.

A chart showing the percentage rise in oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere over the past 3.8 billion years. The great oxidation event occurred some 2.3 billion years ago, but it took more than a billion additional years for the build-up to have much effect on the composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

Then came the the rise of cyanobacteria in the ocean and their production of oxygen.  With their significantly expanded ability to use photosynthesis, this bacterium was able to generate up to 16 times more energy than its counterparts, which allowed it to out-compete and explode in reproduction.

It took hundreds of millions of years more, but that steady increase in the cyanobacteria population led to what is called the “Great Oxidation Event” of some 2.3 billion years ago, when oxygen levels began to really climb in Earth’s atmosphere.  They did level off and remained well below current levels for another billion years, but then shot up in the past billion years.

As Meadows (and others) point out, this means that life existed on Earth for at least two billion years years without producing a detectable oxygen biosignature.  It’s perhaps the ultimate false negative.

But as biosignatures go, oxygen offers a lot.  Because it bonds so readily with other elements and compounds, it remains unbonded or “free” O2 only if it is being constantly produced.  On Earth, the mode of production is overwhelmingly photosynthesis and biology.  What’s more, phototrophs — organism that manufacture their own food from inorganic substances using light for energy — often produce reflections and seasonally dependent biosignatures that can serve as secondary confirmations of biology as the source for abundant Oin an atmosphere.

So in a general way, it makes perfect sense to think that O in the atmosphere of an exoplanet would signify the presence of photosynthesis and life.

Victoria “Vikki” Meadows is the director of the Virtual Planetary Institute at the University of Washington, which has been an important engine for NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI) since 2001.  Among its many lines of research, her group focuses on the Earth as a template for understanding exoplanets, and so Meadows is holding up a rock here as a whimsical nod to that approach.  (University of Washington.)

The problem arises because other worlds out there orbiting stars very different than our own can have quite different chemical and physical dynamics and evolutionary histories, with results at odds with our world.

For instance, when it comes to the non-biological production of substantial amounts of oxygen that could collect in the atmosphere, the dynamics involved could include the following:

Perhaps the trickiest false positive involves the possible non-biological release of O2 via the photolysis of water — the breaking apart of H2O molecules by light.  On Earth, the water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into liquids after reaching a certain height and related temperature, and ultimately falls back down to the surface.  How and why that happens is related to the presence of large amounts of nitrogen in our atmosphere.

But what if an exoplanet atmosphere doesn’t have a lot of an element like nitrogen that allows the water to condense?  Then the water would rise into the stratosphere, where it would be subject to intense UV light,. The molecule would be split, and an H atom would fly off into space — leaving behind large amounts of oxygen that had nothing to do with life.  This conclusion was reached by Robin Wordsworth and Raymond Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago and was published by the The Astrophysical Journal.

Another recently proposed mechanism to generate high levels of abiotic oxygen, first described by Rodrigo Luger and Rory Barnes of Meadow’s VPL team, focuses on the effects of the super-luminous phase of young stars on any rocky planets that might be orbiting them.

Small-mass M dwarfs in particular can burn much brighter when they are young, exposing potential planets around those stars to very high levels of radiation for as long as one billion years.

Modeling suggests that during this super-luminous phase a terrestrial planet that forms within what will become the main sequence habitable zone around an M dwarf star may lose up to several Earth ocean equivalents of water due to evaporation and hydrodynamic escape, and this can lead to generation of large amounts of abiotic O via the same H2O photolysis process.

Red dwarf, or M stars, are the most common in the cosmos.  They start off with a long period of extremely high luminosity and radiation before evolving into low-energy cool (and red) stars.  While a mature red dwarf star might have habitable zone planets that appear today to have characteristics conducive to life,  exoplanet modelers have determined that many of those red dwarf stars may well have lost their oceans during their early  long exposure to intense radiation. This is an artist rendering of three exoplanets around a red dwarf star. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Non-biological oxygen can also build up on an exoplanet, according to a number of researchers, if the host star sends out a higher proportion of far ultraviolet light than near ultraviolet.  The dynamics of photo-chemistry are such, they argue, that the excess far ultraviolet radiation would split CO2 to an extent that O2 would build up in the atmosphere.

There are other potential scenarios that would produce an oxygen false positive, and almost all of them involve radiation from the host star driving chemistry in the planet’s atmosphere, with the planetary environment then allowing O2 to build up.  While some of these false positive mechanisms can produce enough oxygen to make a big impact on their planets, some may not produce enough to even be seen by telescopes currently being planned.

As Meadows tells it, it was Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA Goddard and VPL who first brought the issue of oxygen false-positives to her attention. It was back in 2010 after he found an anomaly in his photo-chemical code results regarding atmospheric oxygen and exoplanets, and followed it. Since that initial finding, several other VPL researchers discovered new ways to produce O2 without life, and often while undertaking research focused on a different scientific goal.

Six years later, when she was writing up a VPL annual report, it jumped out that the group (and others) had found quite a few potential oxygen false positives — a significant development in the field of biosignature detection and interpretation.  That’s when she decided that an analysis and summary of the findings would be useful and important for the exoplanet community.  “Never let it be said that administrative tasks can’t lead to inspiration!” she wrote to me.

While Meadows does not downplay the new challenges to defining oxygen and ozone as credible biosignatures, she does say that these new understandings can be worked around.

Some of that involves targeting planets and stars for observation that don’t have the characteristics known to produce abiotic oxygen.  Some involves finding signatures of this abiotic oxygen that can be identified and then used to discard potential false positives.  And perhaps most telling, the detection of methane alongside free oxygen in an exoplanet atmosphere would be considered a powerful signature of life.

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory investigates the potential habitability of extrasolar planets. The research will help in predicting the habitability of discovered bodies like the Earth-size planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 and the planet orbiting our closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri. (NASA)

The official goal of Meadows’ VPL is to wrestle with this question: “How would we determine if an extrasolar planet were able to support life or had life on it already?”

This has led her to a highly interdisciplinary approach, bringing together fifty researchers from twenty institutions.  In addition to its leading role in the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the VPL is also part of a broad NASA initiative to bring together scientists from different locales and disciplines to work on issues and problems of exoplanet research — the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS.

Given this background and these approaches, it is hardly surprising that Meadows would be among the first to see the oxygen-false positive issue in both scientific and collective terms.

“I wanted the community to have some place to go to when thinking about Ofalse positives,” she said. “We’re learning now about the complexity and richness of exoplanets, and this is essential for preparing to do the best job possible {in terms of looking for signs of life on exoplanets} when we get better and better observations to work with.”

“This story needed to be told now. Forewarned is forearmed.”


Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to