The fungus on Mars and the man who thinks he found life on other planets
Jerry van Andel sat alone on the bow of the RV Lulu, a floating junkyard of a ship, as it bobbed against the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Across deck, a team of scientists bustled around a basket full of strange life forms, wrenched from a mighty crack in the Earth, 10,000 feet below the ocean's surface.
It was a momentous haul, but van Andel, an energetic Dutch oceanographer from Stanford University, wasn't dancing around the find with the rest of the team. He was deep in thought, propped up on the anchor windlass. A shipmate, John Porteus, noticed and shuffled over.
"What's up?" Porteus asked.
"They don't realize what we've discovered," van Andel replied.
It was 1977. Scientists had just observed life, thriving, in an oceanic ridge at the bottom of the sea for the first time. They expected a desert; they found an oasis. Bizarre fish swam through dark smoke billowing out of rock chimneys. Mollusks clung to hydrothermal vents and otherworldly rift worms -- 6-foot-tall tubes adorned with blood-red plumage -- swayed in the current.
The RV Lulu's mission contained no biologists. It wasn't designed to look for life in the ocean depths. But researchers found it anyway. Subsisting on a diet of toxic hydrogen sulfide in total darkness,under bone-crushing pressure, the place was truly alive. As the bucket of specimens was raised to the surface, van Andel immediately grasped the significance of the find: The definition of "life" was being rewritten.
The discovery had profound impacts on scientists' understanding not only of life on our planet, but of the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system. If life could thrive 10,000 feet beneath the sea, then perhaps it could thrive on other planets, too. Planets like Mars.
It seems unlikely the Martian surface, exposed to the harshness of space, could contain anything but the ghostly relics of existence. The planet is too dry. Too cold. But many believe that not only does life exist on Mars, but NASA has already discovered it.
In 1976, a year prior to the RV Lulu's discovery 10,000 meters below the sea, NASA landed two beetle-shaped spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking 2, on the surface of Mars. It was the first time the agency had reached the surface of the red planet. The landers were interplanetary laboratories, carrying a suite of instruments capable of detecting life. Only a few weeks after touching down, Viking started performing biological experiments with soil samples from the surface. The first results that trickled back to Earth were astounding: positive.
Life on another planet.
But was it really?
Staring at a flickering TV monitor inside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gilbert Levin waited nervously with his collaborator Patricia Straat as data from across the cosmos trickled in. It was the night of July 30, 1976, and Levin, a 52-year-old public health engineer with a keen interest in microorganisms, was receiving results from an experiment that had taken place over 200 million kilometers away on the surface of Mars.
Inside a small chamber on the metal hull of Viking 1, a soil sample was being examined for signs of radioactivity. The test, known as the Labeled Release experiment, was designed to take Martian soil and spray it with a soup of radioactive nutrients. If there were microbes in the soil, they would slurp up the soup and release it into the chamber as a radioactive gas -- a response that could be detected by instruments onboard Viking and, theoretically, prove that life existed on Mars.
On the night of the experiment, Levin's son, Ron, was stationed one floor below the biology team at JPL. He pressed his face up to a plastic window, watching data from the mission being printed onto fanfold paper as Viking slowly sent results home. He could see, through the window, signs of a positive detection.
He quickly ran upstairs to tell his dad and the biology team. Their tension dissipated. At around 9 p.m., the first full readout had been delivered to the lab, showing a sharp curve on the graph. It was the first sign life might exist elsewhere in the cosmos.
"I was so excited I sent out for champagne and a cigar," Levin, now 96, recalls.
Additional experiments were required to confirm what the LR experiment was seeing. A week later, Levin ordered a second sample to be taken and heated to 160 degrees centigrade -- killing any microbes that might be in the soil -- and then treated with the radioactive soup. This time the readout showed nothing, as expected.
"The pre-mission criteria for life detection had been satisfied," Ron says. "Dad found microbial life in the soil of Mars."
In total, Viking performed nine tests, and all appeared to point to the same conclusion. But the excitement was short-lived. Another experiment on the lander failed to detect organic molecules necessary for life, leading NASA scientists to hypothesize the LR experiment had detected an unknown chemical reaction taking place in the soil.
"They decided our experiment was wrong," Gilbert Levin says.
The prince of panspermia
Rhawn Gabriel Joseph believes the LR experiment was right.
Joseph is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a shirt unbuttoned to his stomach. He is, according to his autobiography, a well-known and acclaimed neurobiologist. He enjoys the ocean, walking along the beach and hiking. His self-published articles argue life has been found on Mars and Venus, and propagate an alternative view of life's beginnings.
That theory is "panspermia." It holds that life first arose in space and that planets in the solar system were "seeded" with microbes carried across the cosmos by dust, meteors and debris.
"Panspermia is one of those things where all the biologists are saying, 'Maybe it could have happened, but we don't have any evidence for it'," says Paul Myers, a developmental biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Myers has refuted the theory in the past, leading to clashes with Joseph and his colleagues, a group he calls "the panspermia mafia."
Two of panspermia's biggest proponents are famed astronomer Fred Hoyle, who died in 2001, and his protege Chandra Wickramasinghe. Hoyle helped unravel "stellar nucleosynthesis," a process that occurs in stars to generate all the chemical elements in the cosmos and, in collaboration with Wickramasinghe, the pair discovered the organic material that makes up cosmic dust. However, in the latter parts of their careers, the two have made controversial claims with little evidence to back them up, including the idea that viruses, like the flu and coronavirus, come from space.
Myers says the academic pedigree of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe gave panspermia an air of credibility in the 1970s, helping the pair popularize it as a renegade view of the origins of life. But the theory has served as a launching pad for nonsensical, pseudoscientific theories -- including Joseph's belief that Mars is full of mushrooms, fungi and lichen.
Wickramasinghe remains the godfather of panspermia, continuing to publish on the theory in books and his own journals. Rhawn Gabriel Joseph is the heir apparent.
Most of what I know about Joseph comes via his website, brainmind.com. The site immediately invokes the spirit of another famous Joseph -- the Tiger King, Joseph Maldonado-Passage -- with photoshopped images of Rhawn posing in front of a fiery mushroom cloud reading a novel, black hair puffed atop his head, chest hair peeking out from a baby blue shirt. The site feels like it hasn't been updated since the '90s, a far cry from the wall-of-text curriculum vitaes typically associated with academics and researchers.
It includes a 2,000-word biography where Joseph details his childhood and interests growing up, including the "profound impression" that a decapitated chicken, running to and fro, made on him when he was a toddler. Another story recounts his first intimate experience, at age 13, with his "deliciously lovely, long-legged" neighbor, a woman he says he gazed at "like a hungry lion staring at steak."
These bizarre asides make way for academic credentials, explaining Joseph's early life as a neuroscientist in the 1970s when he made "major discoveries" in the field, before pivoting to his current quest, seeking the origins of life. In 2009, he founded his own journal, the Journal of Cosmology (JOC), and, he claims, by 2011 it was "the most read, most talked about scientific journal in the world."
But JOC isn't really a journal, it's a website. Its credibility has been routinely called into question by fellow academics and it's served as a bastion for fringe scientific beliefs promulgated by a cabal of renegade researchers since inception. In one instance, it published claims by ex-NASA scientist Richard Hoover that fossilized bacteria, born in space, were discovered in meteorites on Earth. NASA shot down the bogus claims, stating they hadn't been thoroughly reviewed by experts, and they were widely rebuked by the astrobiological community.
Joseph's own controversial claims about life on Mars have only occasionally been mentioned in the mainstream press and, mostly, have been met with suspicion. The most high-profile of these came in February 2014, when he filed a lawsuit against NASA compelling the agency to examine a "putative biological organism" seen in images beamed back from Mars by the Opportunity rover. The "organism" was later confirmed to be a rock.
Since then, Joseph has rarely been heard from. Outside of a now-defunct YouTube channel, which amassed millions of views on its videos about ancient history, alien life and war atrocities, he maintains no social media accounts. He is not affiliated with any scientific institutions or universities bar the "Brain Research Laboratory," which he established himself in 1986, and "Astrobiology Associates of Northern California San Francisco." Neither have an online presence or a physical address and Joseph's name appears only four times in PubMed, an online repository of research papers maintained by the National Institutes of Health -- all before 1989. His academic credentials pale in comparison to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe.
Joseph remains a mysterious figure, the invisible prince of a ramshackle kingdom. And while his contentious views of the cosmos have mostly been ignored by NASA and the wider scientific community, he's recently claimed a breakthrough.
The mushrooms on Mars
The first interaction I had with Rhawn Gabriel Joseph was via an email sent to journalists on April 11 of this year. The subject line was eyebrow-raising: "Life on Mars published by Nature/Springer." Attached to the email was a 50-page document claiming evidence strongly supports the idea "mushrooms, algae, lichens, fungi and related organisms" are present on the Martian surface.
It contained 13 images, obtained by NASA's Opportunity rover during its time in Eagle Crater. These predominantly featured zoomed and cropped images of Martian "blueberries," spherical rocks composed of hematite, a mineral made of oxygen and iron. The screed "refuted" the notion that these sphericules are hematite and instead posited they may be photosynthesizing mushroom colonies.
The extraordinary claims were accepted for publication and set to appear in a respected, long-running journal, known as Astrophysics & Space Science. Articles submitted to the journal undergo peer review, a process allowing other scientists to anonymously evaluate and validate the research.
After I raised questions about the veracity of Joseph's research with Jeremy Mould, the editor in chief of Astrophysics & Space Science, a spokesperson for the journal confirmed it had investigated the peer review process and "revealed concerns over its robustness." Further peer reviews were ordered, but Joseph withdrew the article from consideration, claiming the publishers had caved in to "pressure from NASA." A week later, he decided to self-publish on another website of his, known as "Astrophysics and Space Science Reviews," a name eerily similar to the Springer Nature journal. (The Astrophysics & Space Science paper was retracted by Springer Nature in October 2020.)
How Joseph's piece moved past the peer review process and was accepted for publication remains a mystery. The process usually weeds out these explicitly non-scientific claims. Other astronomers and astrobiologists who examined the research soundly rebuked its conclusions, citing poor methodology and analysis.
Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University in Australia, said "there's some pretty horrible over-interpretation of blurry photos," while Gretchen Benedix, a geophysicist at Curtin University in Australia, noted "increasing image sizes to investigate the objects of interest does not change the resolution of the image and therefore does not give better analysis of the objects of interest."
Rocco Mancinelli, the editor in chief of the International Journal of Astrobiology, called the science and logic "completely flawed," and said he would recommend it be rejected for publication.
A NASA spokesperson told me "the consensus of the majority of the scientific community is that current conditions on the surface of Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life."
The Martian mushroom hypothesis fell apart. But six months earlier, Joseph's theories of interplanetary fungi had already made it to the big leagues.
The danger (and the fungi on Venus)
In November 2019, Astrophysics & Space Science published Joseph's paper, titled "Life on Venus and the interplanetary transfer of biota from Earth."
The 18-page document proposes that Russia's Venera 13 lander, which spent 127 minutes on the surface of Venus in 1982 before succumbing to extreme heat, had photographed images of organisms resembling lichen and fungi. Like his Mars work, Joseph's review provides "evidence" of life via grainy digital images stretched, cropped and zoomed to oblivion, but notes "similarities in morphology are not proof of life."
It's the first and only example of a paper by Joseph to be published in a legitimate, peer-reviewed journal in the last decade. But following the controversy over the Mars paper, Joseph asked Astrophysics & Space Science to withdraw his Venus review and refund all publication costs, claiming that it publishes "fake articles." After I raised questions about the paper, Springer Nature said the Venus paper "will be carefully investigated following publishing best practice." It's still available online and has been cited in at least one other scientific paper in a key space science journal. On June 23, after raising additional questions about the paper, an editor's note was added.
Over the last decade, Joseph and JOC have mostly been ignored by NASA and by the scientific community. Very few scientists take the alien fungi claims seriously, but Joseph's work has been highlighted in UK tabloids, RT and many well-meaning science news sites since February 2019. Some have touted Joseph's websites as "scientific journals" and even confused Joseph's vanity website with legitimate, similarly named journals. One painted Joseph as someone trying to "defy the odds."
And that's where the danger lies.
Astrobiology, the search for and study of extraterrestrial life, is a serious scientific endeavor. NASA has an astrobiology program, and searching for life is a critical part of its Mars exploration program. And although the public seems resistant to fanciful claims of fungal spores on Mars or lichen on Venus, they haven't gone away. If anything, social media seems to have made us more gullible. As crank, fringe theories start to gather steam in honest peer-reviewed journals, the public's perception of astrobiology can quickly be muddied.
"I feel like these guys have just poisoned the whole field," says Myers.
Gil Levin, the scientist on Viking's LR experiment, feels similarly. He published in Joseph's JOC in 2010 and has a history with Joseph, who nominated the work for a Nobel prize. But in recent years, Levin has distanced himself. "He got to be so erratic that I was afraid to be associated with his work," he says.
Joseph maintains that NASA has been infiltrated and is "controlled by religious fanatics" opposed to searching for extraterrestrial life. He claims he has ended his career "by discovering and documenting the obvious evidence of life on Mars" and says he can only wait for China to investigate the planet because NASA will "never tell the truth."
Luther Beegle, a planetary scientist at NASA's JPL, believes the truth is simple: Viking didn't find life on Mars. But he does say there's an argument to be made that NASA got the order of the experiments all wrong.
"They did Viking and got a bunch of results they didn't understand," says Beegle. He explains how Viking was designed as a biology experiment -- but the space agency didn't have a firm understanding of the Martian soil or atmosphere. It should have done geology and chemistry first. The ambiguous results from Viking's LR experiment had a considerable impact on NASA's exploration the red planet.
Beegle is part of JPL's science division and has overseen work performed by the Curiosity rover since it arrived on Mars in 2012. The next Mars mission will see him become a modern-day Arthur Conan Doyle -- only his Sherlock Holmes is a 10-pound instrument mounted on the robotic arm of Perseverance, NASA's next-gen Mars rover.
"Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals" or Sherloc, as the instrument is affectionately known, will search for signs of life on the red planet, almost 50 years after Viking's first experiments, when it launches to Mars in July. The instrument, and its companion camera (nicknamed Watson), is capable of taking microscopic images of Mars and analyzing them. Equipped with a laser it can fire at the surface, Sherloc is able to measure chemicals present in the soil and rock using a technique known as spectroscopy.
"We do two types of spectroscopy using the same laser," Beegle explains. "The first spectroscopy is Raman spectroscopy, where we get molecular fingerprints."
The Raman spectrometer is able to detect molecules like salts, hydrocarbons and even nucleotides -- the chemical compounds that form RNA and DNA. The other spectrometer detects fluorescence and, Beegle says, is designed to look primarily for aromatic organics, highly stable molecules known to be important in biochemical processes.
If life did exist on Mars, Perseverance should be able to find it.
In February 2021, the rover is scheduled to touch down in Jezero Crater, a region that was once the site of a long-lived Martian lake. It contains layers of sediment that may hold the tell-tale signs that life once thrived there. Sherloc will map the surface of the crater at the microscopic level, inch by inch, and the data it gathers will provide a window into the past.
And Perseverance is tasked with the first stage of a sample recovery mission. The rover is expected to take core samples of the Martian soil during its time at the surface. "We're going to put them in sample tubes to seal them up, and then we're going to leave them on the surface," Beegle notes.
In 2026, a sample-return mission will launch with the aim of nabbing the dropped samples and placing them on a rocket to Martian orbit and eventually back to Earth.
The bottom of the ocean and the edge of the cosmos
The existence of deep-sea rift worms was inconceivable before van Andel and a team of undersea explorers discovered them, swaying in the warm waters of Earth's hydrothermal vent system.
And while seeing them thriving at the bottom of the ocean is evidence enough of the variety of ways life can exist, what makes the worms truly remarkable is invisible to the human eye.
The worms have no mouth and no gut. They can't hunt for food. Instead, as Colleen Cavanaugh discovered in 1981, trillions of microbes inhabit their bodies, converting hydrogen sulfide and oxygen into energy, a process known as "chemosynthesis." The worms depend on the bacteria to survive.
The discovery of chemosynthesis in the rift worm helped change our perceptions of not just the ocean floor, but the cosmos itself. A 2017 Nature paper described microfossils, up to 4.3 billion years old, present in sediment from ancient hydrothermal vents. If bacteria did arise and survive under such conditions, why couldn't they have done so below the surface of Mars? Or in the abyss below the icy shell of Jupiter's moon Europa? Perhaps life could even take advantage of the hydrocarbon lakes present on the surface of Titan. Those theories are yet to be rigorously tested.
We found life thriving in places we never expected almost 50 years ago. We can still be surprised. So we can't, and shouldn't, write off the theory of panspermia outright. We can't put a line through the idea that life is lurking underneath Mars' barren exterior. The evidence suggests it's highly unlikely, but we can't be certain.
On the other hand, allowing discredited and outlandish claims of mushrooms on Mars or fungi on Venus to be published in legitimate academic journals puts us on a slippery slope. Misinformation spreads quickly and easily. It can actively harm honest, rational astrobiology research.
There is no NASA conspiracy. We landed on the moon. The Earth is not flat. Coronavirus didn't come from outer space. There are no fungi on Venus.
And Mars is not home to mushrooms.
Originally published June 30, 2020. Republished after new claims of Martian fungus began circulating the web.