Inferring chemical disequilibrium biosignatures for Proterozoic Earth-like exoplanets

Amber V. Young, Tyler D. Robinson, Joshua Krissansen-Totton, Edward W. Schwieterman, Nicholas F. Wogan, Michael J. Way, Linda E. Sohl, Giada N. Arney, Christopher T. Reinhard, Michael R. Line, David C. Catling, James D. Windsor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Chemical disequilibrium quantified using the available free energy has previously been proposed as a potential biosignature. However, researchers remotely sensing exoplanet biosignatures have not yet investigated how observational uncertainties impact the ability to infer a life-generated available free energy. We pair an atmospheric retrieval tool to a thermodynamics model to assess the detectability of chemical disequilibrium signatures of Earth-like exoplanets, focusing on the Proterozoic eon when the atmospheric abundances of oxygen–methane disequilibrium pairs may have been relatively high. Retrieval model studies applied across a range of gas abundances revealed that order-of-magnitude constraints on the disequilibrium energy are achieved with simulated reflected-light observations for the high-abundance scenario and high signal-to-noise ratios (50), whereas weak constraints are found for moderate signal-to-noise ratios (20–30) and medium- to low-abundance cases. Furthermore, the disequilibrium-energy constraints are improved by using the modest thermal information encoded in water vapour opacities at optical and near-infrared wavelengths. These results highlight how remotely detecting chemical disequilibrium biosignatures can be a useful and metabolism-agnostic approach to biosignature detection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-110
Number of pages10
JournalNature Astronomy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics


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