On Mars, most life from Earth would not survive; however, according to the endurance tests NASA researchers have conducted, some types of microbe, like the black mold fungus, might be able survive on the Red Planet's surface for a substantial timeframe.
But could that mean fungi are already alive, well, and thriving on Mars? Highly doubtful, but some scientists seem to think so. An international team of researchers recently claimed that there is indeed life on Mars — in the form of "fungus-like Martian specimens" that resemble the shape of puffballs — and that they have found photographic evidence of it, according to a new study published in the journal Advances in Microbiology.
The claims are based on observation of over 40 images from NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, as well as some taken by the agency’s HiRISE high-resolution camera attached to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These fungus-like specimens, according to the scientists, also appeared atop the rovers that took the images, and the researchers; microbiologist Dr. Xinli Wei from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, astrophysicist Dr. Rudolph Schild from Harvard-Smithsonian, and Dr. Rhawn Gabriel Joseph; claim that this suggests the "life-forms" might grow on any surface, not just the Martian soil.
Does the evidence hold up?
The study's wild claims have been met with skepticism from the scientific community, who cite inaccurate methodology in the paper, and point out that spotting similarities on photographs cannot be shown as evidence of life on Mars. The team also admitted in the study that, "similarities in morphology are not proof of life," and that "we cannot completely rule out minerals, weathering, and unknown geological forces that are unique to Mars and unknown and alien to Earth."
Still, the team was quick to come to conclusions, stating that these features they've pointed out correspond to evidence of fungal growth on Mars. This is not the first time some of these researchers have made such a claim either. Back in April 2020, Dr. Rhawn Gabriel Joseph released a similar study on Research Gate, which was not peer-reviewed, and which also claimed mushrooms were growing on Mars.
Moreover, Joseph sued NASA in 2014, asking that they investigate a 'putative biological organism' that he claimed he saw in images taken by the Opportunity rover. The 'putative biological organism' turned out to be nothing more than a rock.
In addition to the incorrect methodology behind the wild claims, the journal this most recent paper was published in — Advances in Microbiology — is known to be a relatively obscure journal published in China and has previously been caught out for charging scientists fees to have their papers published without any peer review or fact-checking.
Life on Mars: Will we ever find it?
What we do know, is that a year ago, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover discovered organic compounds called thiophenes (containing four carbon atoms and a sulfur atom, arranged in a ring) on the Red Planet — hinting at the potential for early life on Mars. They're typically found in coal, crude oil, and white truffles (of all things!) here on Earth.
Their presence means there may once have been some types life on Mars, which produced the compounds through a biological process, most likely involving bacteria rather than a truffle — but this cannot be conclusively said to be the real deal without further study. It has been proposed that the thiophenes could have reached Mars through meteor impacts, or created through thermochemical sulfate reduction.
And in the coming years (or decades), astronauts on Mars may be the first ones to finally confirm that we are not alone in the universe. But until then, it is best to remain skeptical of any fungi claims.
Disclaimer: This article has been updated. A previous version claimed the scientists found evidence of fungus growing on Mars. This was changed to highlight the inaccurate methodology used by the said scientists.