I know, I know, huge methane plumes on Mars (!!!) it’s hard to keep one’s head on straight. I feel a bit woozy myself. But I really expect more from the New York Times than this:
Normally when I see a headline like that, I assume the headline writer has been hitting the black label a little to hard again. Unfortunately, that’s not the case this time here’s the second sentence in that article:
Subsurface Martian cows appear unlikely, but scientists are seriously considering the possibility that bacteria are generating the methane.
Well, first off, of course cow emissions are
bacterially* generated, but whatever. Even *if* the Martian methane is of biological origin (and don’t forget there is loads of abiotic methane elsewhere in the solar system) it’s a tremendous leap to attribute the methane production to bacteria. “Bacteria” is not a generic term for microbes, it refers to a specific group of unicellular organisms that have been on Earth for billions of years.
The discovery of bacteria on Mars would have tremendous implications for the interplanetary dispersal of organisms and possibly even for the origin of life itself. But the presence of methane alone does not yet confirm the presence of life on Mars and it certainly doesn’t indicate that any hypothetical Martian microbes had a common origin with life on Earth as the presence of bacteria would. Lets wait for some more facts before we start making a interplanetary leaps to conclusions, please!
POSTSCRIPTO: *It occurred to me that actually methanogens (microbes that generate methane) aren’t even technically bacteria–they’re archaea! Any speculation that bacteria are responsible for the methane plumes on Mars is basically totally without merit. I’m sure we’ll see a retraction in the Times tomorrow.