The unexpected atmospheric detection of phosphine, a smelly gas made by microbes on Earth, could spark a revolution in astrobiology.
There is something funky going on in the clouds of Venus. Telescopes have detected unusually high concentrations of the molecule phosphine—a stinky, flammable chemical typically associated with feces, farts and rotting microbial activity—in an atmospheric layer far above the planet’s scorching surface.
The finding is curious because here on Earth, phosphine is essentially always associated with living creatures, either as a by-product of metabolic processes or of human technology such as industrial fumigants and methamphetamine labs. Although toxic to many organisms, the molecule has been singled out as a potentially unambiguous signature of life because it is so difficult to make through ordinary geological or atmospheric action.
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