Searching for Life, Mindful of Lyfe’s Possibilities
by Michael L. Wong, Stuart Bartlett, Sihe Chen, and Louisa Tierney
We are embarking on a new age of astrobiology, one in which numerous interplanetary missions and telescopes will be designed, built, and launched with the explicit goal of finding evidence for life beyond Earth. Such a profound aim warrants caution and responsibility when interpreting and disseminating results. Scientists must take care not to overstate (or over-imply) confidence in life detection when evidence is lacking, or only incremental advances have been made. Recently, there has been a call for the community to create standards of evidence for the detection and reporting of biosignatures. In this perspective, we wish to highlight a critical but often understated element to the discussion of biosignatures: Life detection studies are deeply entwined with and rely upon our (often preconceived) notions of what life is, the origins of life, and habitability. Where biosignatures are concerned, these three highly related questions are frequently relegated to a low priority, assumed to be already solved or irrelevant to the question of life detection. Therefore, our aim is to bring to the fore how these other major astrobiological frontiers are central to searching for life elsewhere and encourage astrobiologists to embrace the reality that all of these science questions are interrelated and must be furthered together rather than separately. Finally, in an effort to be more inclusive of life as we do not know it, we propose tentative criteria for a more general and expansive characterization of habitability that we call genesity.
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