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Remote sensing of life: polarimetric signatures of photosynthetic pigments as sensitive biomarkers

  • Svetlana V. Berdyugina (a1) (a2), Jeff R. Kuhn (a3), David M. Harrington (a1) (a3), Tina Šantl-Temkiv (a4) and E. John Messersmith (a3)...

We develop a polarimetry-based remote-sensing method for detecting and identifying life forms in distant worlds and distinguishing them from non-biological species. To achieve this we have designed and built a bio-polarimetric laboratory experiment BioPol for measuring optical polarized spectra of various biological and non-biological samples. Here we focus on biological pigments, which are common in plants and bacteria that employ them either for photosynthesis or for protection against reactive oxygen species. Photosynthesis, which provides organisms with the ability to use light as a source of energy, emerged early in the evolution of life on Earth. The ability to harvest such a significant energy resource could likely also develop on habited exoplanets. Thus, we investigate the detectability of biomolecules that can capture photons of particular wavelengths and contribute to storing their energy in chemical bonds. We have carried out laboratory spectropolarimetric measurements of a representative sample of plants containing various amounts of pigments such as chlorophyll, carotenoids and others. We have also measured a variety of non-biological samples (sands, rocks). Using our lab measurements, we have modelled intensity and polarized spectra of Earth-like planets having different surface coverage by photosynthetic organisms, deserted land and ocean, as well as clouds. Our results demonstrate that linearly polarized spectra provide very sensitive and rather unambiguous detection of photosynthetic pigments of various kinds. Our work paves the path towards analogous measurements of microorganisms and remote sensing of microbial ecology on the Earth and of extraterrestrial life on other planets and moons.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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