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Purported phosphine on Venus more likely to be ordinary sulfur dioxide, new study shows

An image of Venus compiled using data from the Mariner 10 spacecraft in 1974. In September, a team led by



An image of Venus compiled using data from the Mariner 10 spacecraft in 1974.

In September, a team led by astronomers in the United Kingdom announced that they had detected the chemical phosphine in the thick clouds of Venus. The team’s reported detection, based on observations by two Earth-based radio telescopes, surprised many Venus experts. Earth’s atmosphere contains small amounts of phosphine, which may be produced by life. Phosphine on Venus generated buzz that the planet, often succinctly touted as a “hellscape,” could somehow harbor life within its acidic clouds.

Since that initial claim, other science teams have cast doubt on the reliability of the phosphine detection. Now, a team led by researchers at the University of Washington has used a robust model of the conditions within the atmosphere of Venus to revisit and comprehensively reinterpret the radio telescope observations underlying the initial phosphine claim. As they report in a paper accepted to the Astrophysical Journal and posted Jan. 25 to the preprint site arXiv, the U.K.-led group likely wasn’t detecting phosphine at all.

“Instead of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, the data are consistent with an alternative hypothesis: They were detecting sulfur dioxide,” said co-author Victoria Meadows, a UW professor of astronomy. “Sulfur dioxide is the third-most-common chemical compound in Venus’ atmosphere, and it is not considered a sign of life.”

The team behind the new study also includes scientists at NASA’s Caltech-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the NASA Ames Research Center and the University of California, Riverside.

The UW-led team shows that sulfur dioxide, at levels plausible for Venus, can not only explain the observations but is also more consistent with what astronomers know of the planet’s atmosphere and its punishing chemical environment, which includes clouds of sulfuric acid. In addition, the researchers show that the initial signal originated not in the planet’s cloud layer, but far above it, in an upper layer of Venus’ atmosphere where phosphine molecules would be destroyed within seconds. This lends more support to the hypothesis that sulfur dioxide produced the signal.

Both the purported phosphine signal and this new interpretation of the data center on radio astronomy. Every chemical compound absorbs unique wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes radio waves, X-rays and visible light. Astronomers use radio waves, light and other emissions from planets to learn about their chemical composition, among other properties.

In 2017 using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, or JCMT, the U.K.-led team discovered a feature in the radio emissions from Venus at 266.94 gigahertz. Both phosphine and sulfur dioxide absorb radio waves near that frequency. To differentiate between the two, in 2019 the same team obtained follow-up observations of Venus using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA. Their analysis of ALMA observations at frequencies where only sulfur dioxide absorbs led the team to conclude that sulfur dioxide levels in Venus were too low to account for the signal at 266.94 gigahertz, and that it must instead be coming from phosphine.

In this new study by the UW-led group, the researchers started by modeling conditions within Venus’ atmosphere, and using that as a basis to comprehensively interpret the features that were seen — and not seen — in the JCMT and ALMA datasets.

“This is what’s known as a radiative transfer model, and it incorporates data from several decades’ worth of observations of Venus from multiple sources, including observatories here on Earth and spacecraft missions like Venus Express,” said lead author Andrew Lincowski, a researcher with the UW Department of Astronomy.

The team used that model to simulate signals from phosphine and sulfur dioxide for different levels of Venus’ atmosphere, and how those signals would be picked up by the JCMT and ALMA in their 2017 and 2019 configurations. Based on the shape of the 266.94-gigahertz signal picked up by the JCMT, the absorption was not coming from Venus’ cloud layer, the team reports. Instead, most of the observed signal originated some 50 or more miles above the surface, in Venus’ mesosphere. At that altitude, harsh chemicals and ultraviolet radiation would shred phosphine molecules within seconds.

“Phosphine in the mesosphere is even more fragile than phosphine in Venus’ clouds,” said Meadows. “If the JCMT signal were from phosphine in the mesosphere, then to account for the strength of the signal and the compound’s sub-second lifetime at that altitude, phosphine would have to be delivered to the mesosphere at about 100 times the rate that oxygen is pumped into Earth’s atmosphere by photosynthesis.”

The researchers also discovered that the ALMA data likely significantly underestimated the amount of sulfur dioxide in Venus’ atmosphere, an observation that the U.K.-led team had used to assert that the bulk of the 266.94-gigahertz signal was from phosphine.

“The antenna configuration of ALMA at the time of the 2019 observations has an undesirable side effect: The signals from gases that can be found nearly everywhere in Venus’ atmosphere — like sulfur dioxide — give off weaker signals than gases distributed over a smaller scale,” said co-author Alex Akins, a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This phenomenon, known as spectral line dilution, would not have affected the JCMT observations, leading to an underestimate of how much sulfur dioxide was being seen by JCMT.

“They inferred a low detection of sulfur dioxide because of that artificially weak signal from ALMA,” said Lincowski. “But our modeling suggests that the line-diluted ALMA data would have still been consistent with typical or even large amounts of Venus sulfur dioxide, which could fully explain the observed JCMT signal.”

“When this new discovery was announced, the reported low sulfur dioxide abundance was at odds with what we already know about Venus and its clouds,” said Meadows. “Our new work provides a complete framework that shows how typical amounts of sulfur dioxide in the Venus mesosphere can explain both the signal detections, and non-detections, in the JCMT and ALMA data, without the need for phosphine.”

With science teams around the world following up with fresh observations of Earth’s cloud-shrouded neighbor, this new study provides an alternative explanation to the claim that something geologically, chemically or biologically must be generating phosphine in the clouds. But though this signal appears to have a more straightforward explanation — with a toxic atmosphere, bone-crushing pressure and some of our solar system’s hottest temperatures outside of the sun — Venus remains a world of mysteries, with much left for us to explore.


Additional co-authors are David Crisp at the JPL, Edward Schwieterman at UC Riverside, Giada Arney and Shawn Domagal-Goldman at the Goddard Space Flight Center, UW researcher Michael Wong, Paul Steffes at Georgia Tech and Niki Parenteau at NASA Ames. The research was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program and performed at the NExSS Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

For more information, contact Meadows at [email protected], Akins at [email protected] and Lincowski at [email protected]

Grant number: 80NSSC18K0829




Diving into devonian seas: Ancient marine faunas unlock secrets of warming oceans

Credit: Syracuse University Members of Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences are shining new light on an enduring mystery–one



Members of Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences are shining new light on an enduring mystery–one that is millions of years in the making.

A team of paleontologists led by Professor Cathryn Newton has increased scientists’ understanding of whether Devonian marine faunas, whose fossils are lodged in a unit of bedrock in Central New York known as the Hamilton Group, were stable for millions of years before succumbing to waves of extinctions.

Drawing on 15 years of quantitative analysis with fellow professor Jim Brower (who died in 2018), Newton has continued to probe the structure of these ancient fossil communities, among the most renowned on Earth.

The group’s findings, reported by the Geological Society of America (GSA), provide critical new evidence for the unusual, long-term stability of these Devonian period communities.

Such persistence, Newton says, is a longstanding scientific enigma. She and her colleagues tested the hypothesis that these ancient communities displayed coordinated stasis–a theory that attempts to explain the emergence and disappearance of species across geologic time.

Newton and Brower, along with their student Willis Newman G’93, found that Devonian marine communities vary more in species composition than the theory predicts. Newton points out that they sought not to disprove coordinated stasis but rather to gain a more sophisticated understanding of when it is applicable. “Discovering more about the dynamics of these apparently stable Devonian communities is critical,” she says. “Such knowledge has immediate significance for marine community changes in our rapidly warming seas.”

Since geologist James Hall Jr. first published a series of volumes on the region’s Devonian fossils and strata in the 1840s, the Hamilton Group has become a magnet for research scientists and amateur collectors alike. Today, Central New York is frequently used to test new ideas about large-scale changes in Earth’s organisms and environments.

During Middle Devonian time (approximately 380-390 million years ago), the faunal composition of the region changed little over 4-6 million years. “It’s a significant amount for marine invertebrate communities to remain stable, or ‘locked,’” explains Newton, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

She, Brower and student researchers spent years examining eight communities of animals that once dwelled in a warm, shallow sea on the northern rim of the Appalachian Basin (which, eons ago, lay south of the equator). When the organisms died, sediment from the seafloor began covering their shells and exoskeletons. Minerals from the sediment gradually seeped into their remains, causing them to fossilize. The process also preserved many of them in living position, conserving original shell materials at some sites.

These fossils currently populate exposed bedrock throughout Central New York, ranging from soft, dark, deep-water shale to hard, species-rich, shelf siltstone. “Communities near the top of the bedrock exhibit more taxonomic and ecological diversity than those at the bottom,” Newton says. “We can compare the community types and composition through time. They are remarkable sites.”

Coordinated stasis has been a source of contention since 1995, when it was introduced. At the center of the dispute are two model-based explanations: environmental tracking and ecological locking.

Environmental tracking suggests that faunas follow their environment. “Here, periods of relative stasis are flanked by coordinated extinctions or regional disappearances. When the environment changes, so do marine faunas,” says Newton, also Professor of Interdisciplinary Sciences and Dean Emerita of Arts and Sciences.

Ecological locking, in contrast, views marine faunas as tightly structured communities, resistant to large-scale taxonomic change. Traditionally, this model has been used to describe the stability of lower Hamilton faunas.

Newton and her colleagues analyzed more than 80 sample sites, each containing some 300 specimens. Special emphasis was placed on the Cardiff and Pecksport Members, two rock formations in the Finger Lakes region that are part of the ancient Marcellus subgroup, famed for its natural gas reserves.

“We found that lower Hamilton faunas, with two exceptions, do not have clear counterparts among upper ones. Therefore, our quantitative tests do not support the ecological locking model as an explanation for community stability in these faunas,” she continues.

Newton considers this project a final tribute to Newman, a professor of biology at the State University of New York at Cortland, who died in 2014, and Brower, who fell seriously ill while the manuscript was being finalized. “Jim knew that he likely would not live to see its publication,” says Newton, adding that Brower died as the paper was submitted to GSA.

She says this new work extends and, in some ways, completes the team’s earlier research by further analyzing community structures in the Marcellus subgroup. “It has the potential to change how scientists view long-term stability in ecological communities.”


The group’s findings, reported by the Geological Society of America (GSA), provide critical new evidence for the unusual, long-term stability of these Devonian period communities.



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Pioneering research unravels hidden origins of Eastern Asia’s ‘land of milk and honey’

Credit: Dr Shufeng Li A study has revealed for the first time the ancient origins of one of the world’s



A study has revealed for the first time the ancient origins of one of the world’s most important ecosystems by unlocking the mechanism which determined the evolution of its mountains and how they shaped the weather there as well as its flora and fauna.

It was previously thought Southern Tibet and the Himalaya were instrumental in turning the once barren land of eastern Asia into lush forests and abundant coastal regions which became home to a rich array of plant, animal and marine life, including some of the world’s rarest species. But new findings, published today in the journal Science Advances, conversely show Northern Tibet played the more influential role in this transformation which began more than 50 million years ago.

Scientists from a UK-China partnership used an innovative climate model to simulate vegetation and plant diversity, combined with spectacular new fossil finds, to discover how this unique biodiversity hotspot evolved.

Lead author, Dr Shufeng Li, a visiting scientist at the University of Bristol in the UK and associate professor at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) Institute in Yunnan, China, said: “Until now it was unknown why the climate changed from that of a dry, arid, almost desert-like ecosystem to that of a lush, wet ecosystem where a vast array of plant, animal, and marine life can be found, including some of the world’s rarest species.

“We conducted 18 sensitivity experiments using different Tibetan topographies representing various late Paleogene to early Neogene conditions, which test almost all possible Tibetan growth evolution scenarios.”

The findings showed that from the late Paleogene to the early Neogene age, some 23-40 million years ago, the growth of the north and northeastern portion of Tibet was the most important factor because it increased rainfall, especially winter rainfall, over eastern Asia where dry winter conditions existed before.

This allowed the development of a stable, wet and warm climate, conducive to the evolution of vast and varied plants and animal species which formed the biodiversity hotspot known today for supplying more than a billion people with fresh water and providing ingredients used for lifesaving pharmaceutical drugs. Rare species of monkey, tiger, leopard, bear, fox, mongoose, hedgehog, seal, dolphin, and sea lion all live in this abundant ecosystem.

Earlier research has mainly investigated the impact of Tibetan mountain building much further to the South when India collided with Asia around 55 million years ago, leading to the rise of the Himalaya mountains and, eventually, the vast arid Tibetan Plateau. However, recent work is increasingly showing the creation of the modern Tibetan plateau was complex, and did not rise as one monolithic block as originally believed.

Co-author Professor Paul Valdes, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Bristol who led the modelling group, said: “Most previous studies have focused on Southern Tibet and the Himalaya, but our results indicate it is the growth of northern Tibet which is really important.

“The topography of northern Tibet decreases the East Asian winter monsoon winds in the southern part of China, causing wetter winters in eastern Asia and this allows the expansion of vegetation and biodiversity.”

So enigmatic was the drastic change that even in Chinese folklore this area is known as the ‘Land of Fish and Rice’, due to its immense productivity.

“Without the growth in Northern Tibetan mountains, none of this would exist. But our research should also be taken as a cautionary tale,” Professor Valdes explained.

“A unique set of tectonic and stable climatic conditions over millions of years allowed the development of this rare species rich region of South East Asia. However, global warming, harmful intensive agricultural techniques, forest clearing and lack of integrated conservation to preserve this unique ecosystem means once it is gone, it is gone for good.”

Professor Zhekun Zhou, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ XTBG, who led on the fossil analysis, said: “So effectively, without northern Tibetan growth, there would be no ‘land of milk and honey’ in eastern Asia. This research represents a significant breakthrough in understanding how this remarkably rich region of mountainous terrain and diverse plant life formed.”



‘Orographic evolution of northern Tibet shaped vegetation and plant diversity in eastern Asia’ by Shufeng Li et al in Science Advances

Notes to editors:

A selection of images, including captions and credit details, can be found here: Dr Li Shufeng and Professor Paul Valdes are available for interview:

Lead and corresponding author: Dr Li Shufeng – Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTGB) Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yunnan.

Email – XTGB: [email protected] and Bristol: [email protected]

Co-author: Prof. Paul Valdes – University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences

Email: [email protected]



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Focusing on field analysis

Microscopy systems using customized chips could expand on-site identification of pathogensCredit: Viri et al. The development of cost-efficient, portable microscopy



Microscopy systems using customized chips could expand on-site identification of pathogens

Credit: Viri et al.

The development of cost-efficient, portable microscopy units would greatly expand their use in remote field locations and in places with fewer resources, potentially leading to easier on-site analysis of contaminants such as E. coli in water sources as well as other practical applications.

Current microscopy systems, like those used to image micro-organisms, are expensive because they are optimized for maximum resolution and minimal deformation of the images the systems produce. But some situations do not require such optimization–for instance, simply detecting the presence of pathogens in water. One potential approach to developing a low-cost portable microscopy system is to use transparent microspheres in combination with affordable low-magnification objective lenses to increase image resolution and sensitivity.

A group of researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland published a study on such an assembly composed of barium titanate spheres that are partially embedded in thin polymeric membranes. The result of their work, appearing in SPIE’s new Journal of Optical Microsystems, is a proposed method to fabricate microfluidic chips using the assembly for enhanced detection of bacteria. Such customized chips with fluidic and optical components already integrated have many benefits when combined with portable low-end imagers for analyses at remote sites or in resource-limited regions.

“Cost reduction and portability are of benefit to the proliferation of analytical devices, especially in limited-resource contexts, and the integration of affordable micro-optical elements directly onto microfluidic chips can highly contribute to this,” said Martin Gijs, a professor at EPFL and an author of the published work.

The assembly’s ability to enhance bacteria detection paves the way for other applications friendly to use at remote sites. Additionally, the researchers revealed an opportunity to customize specific functional microfluidic elements. Such integrations could bring to fruition applications such as on-site antibiotic testing.

Given falling costs of the components and fabrication methods, the researchers’ proposed fabrication protocol could be adapted easily for a wide variety of microfluidic chips with integrated optical elements. Considered along with the lower cost of low-end imaging systems, the approach could sharply increase the use of such microscopy systems in low-resource locations for on-site analyses.


Read the open access paper: Vittorio Viri, Daniel Migliozzi, and Martin A.M. Gijs, “Integration of polymeric membrane/dielectric sphere assemblies in microfluidic chips for enhanced-contrast imaging with low-magnification systems,” J. Opt. Microsys. 1(1), 014001 (2021) doi 10.1117/1.JOM.1.1.014001.

A group of researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland published a study on such an assembly composed of barium titanate spheres that are partially embedded in thin polymeric membranes. The result of their work, appearing in SPIE’s new Journal of Optical Microsystems, is a proposed method to fabricate microfluidic chips using the assembly for enhanced detection of bacteria. Such customized chips with fluidic and optical components already integrated have many benefits when combined with portable low-end imagers for analyses at remote sites or in resource-limited regions.



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