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• A group of scientists published a paper in which they claim that Mars Rover photographs indicate that fungi are growing on Mars.
• The legitimacy of the paper’s lead researcher has been repeatedly called into question.
• Experts say that the photos are of other things — and note that photos are not enough to prove life on Mars.
A group of scientists claim they have found proof of life — in the form of fungi — on Mars, according to a blog post and posts on social media.
"Scientists Claim to Spot Fungus Growing on Mars in NASA Rover Photos," read a Futurism article headline. "MARS’ MAGIC MUSHROOMS Life on Mars shock claim as ‘growing FUNGI’ spotted in Mars Curiosity Rover snaps," read another in The Sun.
The articles point to a study published by a group of scientists titled, "Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images."
The posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
Are the images in the paper proof of life on Mars? No, experts say.
The paper referenced by these articles was uploaded to ResearchGate. In it, the scientists say that "Fungi thrive in radiation intense environments," and imply that Mars provides such an environment.
"Sequential photos document that fungus-like Martian specimens emerge from the soil and increase in size, including those resembling puffballs," the paper reads. The researchers claim to have studied photos of the same location on Mars several days apart as proof that fungus "grew" over time.
In the paper’s "conclusions" section, the researchers acknowledge that "minerals, weathering and unknown geological forces that are unique to Mars" could be causing the changes captured in the images.
But the paper still goes on to conclude: "However, growth, movement, alterations in location and shape, constitute behavior, and coupled with life-like morphology, strongly support the hypothesis there is life on Mars."
The paper has caused false headlines and social media posts that claim scientists have found "proof of life" on Mars to emerge.
When asked if there was any credible evidence that fungi were discovered on Mars, scientists agreed there wasn’t.
"No — especially for a claim of this magnitude," said Dr. Kenneth Nealson, a professor emeritus of earth sciences and an expert at the University of Southern California on microbial life in extreme environments. "I don’t know who reviewed the paper, but I would take away their license as a biologist — especially as a microbiologist."
Dr. Edwin Kite, an assistant professor in the department of the geophysical sciences and a planetary geoscientist and Mars expert at the University of Chicago, said the formations photographed were examples of something else entirely.
"These features are well understood," he said, before linking to a photo example. "They are abiotic features caused by saltation abrasion (wind erosion). Numerous examples have been inspected by rovers [...] They are not fungi."
Rhawn Joseph, the lead researcher in the study, has been challenged over his prior planetary research as well. One paper he published related to "life on Venus" was later retracted by the journal Astrophysics and Space Science.
In 2014, it was reported that Joseph was suing NASA over what he claimed were attempts to "deceive the public" by downplaying signs of life found on Mars.
Although other outlets have reported that the paper was accepted for publication in the journal "Advances in Microbiology," Kite pointed out that the study is currently only found on ResearchGate, a website to which anyone can upload their work.
Another author of the paper — Wei Xinli from the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences — told the South China Morning Post that the paper was "conjecture instead of results based on tangible examination of samples."
The likelihood that photos presented in the paper actually depict fungi growing on the surface of Mars "is somewhere around zero," according to Nealson. Claims of life on Mars "have never been substantiated," and the atmosphere doesn’t suggest that there is life, he said. Nealson also said that the paper lacked "compositional data" that would indicate the makeup of the formations in the photos.
"Get some data before you publish conclusions," he said. "This conclusion section should be renamed ‘speculations.’"
A paper published online has led to claims that there are mushrooms growing on Mars or proof of life on the red planet.
"Growth, movement, alterations in location and shape, constitute behavior, and coupled with life-like morphology, strongly support the hypothesis there is life on Mars," the paper concluded.
Experts say that there is no substantiated evidence of life on Mars. They said there is "around zero" likelihood that the photos presented in the study actually reveal fungi growing on Mars, and noted that the features in the photos are "abiotic," or not derived from living organisms.
We rate these claims False.
Futurism, "Scientists Claim to Spot Fungus Growing on Mars in NASA Rover Photos," May 6, 2021
Futurism, "Experts Shred Paper Claiming to Identify Mushrooms on Mars," May 7, 2021
CNET, "No, NASA photos are not evidence of fungus growing on Mars, sorry," May 6, 2021
TNW News, "Mushrooms on Mars is a hoax — stop believing hack ‘scientists,’" May 7, 2021
South China Morning Post, "Fungi on Mars? Researchers claim signs of life on red planet," May 7, 2021
ResearchGate, "Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images," accessed May 7, 2021
Email interview with Dr. Edwin Kite, assistant professor in the department of the geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, May 7, 2021
University of Chicago, "Mars expert available to discuss Perseverance rover landing scheduled for Thursday," Feb. 16, 2021
ResearchGate, "Rhawn Gabriel Joseph," accessed May 9, 2021
SpringerLink, "Retraction Note to: Life on Venus and the interplanetary transfer of biota from Earth," accessed May 9, 2021
Retraction Watch, "‘Prince of panspermia’ has a paper retracted, and sues Springer Nature," Oct. 6, 2020
ResearchGate, "About," accessed May 9, 2021
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