If we ever found life on another planet it would probably be the biggest news of the millennium, and you’d expect the evidence to be published in a highly prestigious journal like Nature or Science. So, when a study claiming that mushrooms are growing on Mars appears in an obscure and largely discredited publication, you have to be more than a little skeptical.
Earlier this week, a preprint of a new study appeared online, bearing the eyebrow-raising title Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images. Unfortunately, the paper is due for publication in the journal Advances in Microbiology, which is part of the Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP) portfolio. Given that SCIRP has a history of plagiarizing articles from other journals, it’s pretty difficult to take any of its content seriously.
The study itself comprises an analysis of images taken by NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, which have been carrying out observations on the Red Planet, in addition to photographs taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Using red circles and arrows to highlight certain features, the study authors point out a series of structures that look a lot like rocks but also maybe a tiny bit like puffball mushrooms.
“Fungi thrive in radiation intense environments,” write the authors. “Sequential photos document that fungus-like Martian specimens emerge from the soil and increase in size, including those resembling puffballs.” They go on to claim that the images show some mushrooms regrowing after being destroyed by the wheels of one of the rovers and that “black fungi-bacteria-like specimens” even began growing on the rovers themselves.
The paper points out that the number of white blobs in a particular area increased over several days, suggesting that this can only be explained by the growth of new mushrooms. However, the authors do concede that “similarities in morphology are not proof of life,” and that “minerals, weathering, and unknown geological forces” may explain the features in the images.
Naturally, we can’t completely rule out the existence of mushrooms on Mars – yet the fact that the authors have a track history of making unsubstantiated claims renders their new study particularly difficult to believe. In particular, the involvement of Rhawn Gabriel Joseph undermines the credibility of the entire project.
Nicknamed the Space Tiger King – due to the photographs posted on his frankly ridiculous personal website – Joseph has spent decades erroneously claiming that life has already been discovered on other planets. Back in the 1970s, he began alleging that NASA’s Viking lander had found biological matter, despite the agency stating the exact opposite of this.
After setting up his own journal in an attempt to air his unscientific assertions, he later filed a lawsuit against NASA in order to force them to investigate a structure which he claimed resembled a “putative biological organism”, but which later turned out to be a rock. Bizarrely, however, he did manage to get one study published in the highly respected journal Astrophysics and Space Science in 2019.
The study used grainy images taken by a Russian lander that spent just 127 minutes on the surface of Venus in 1982, claiming that certain features resembled fungi. However, following an investigation by CNET’s Jackson Ryan, the journal retracted the study in October 2020.
Obviously, we have to accept the slim possibility that Joseph and his colleagues could be right, and of course, we’d all be thrilled if there really were mushrooms growing on Mars. However, given the unconvincing nature of the evidence and the fact that Joseph has such a dodgy reputation, the existence of Martian mycelia seems rather unlikely.