Assessment of Isoprene as a Possible Biosignature Gas in Exoplanets with Anoxic Atmospheres


Zhan, Zhuchang, Sara Seager, Janusz Petkowski, Clara Sousa-Silva, Sukrit Ranjan, Jingcheng Huang, and William Bains. 2021. “Assessment of Isoprene as a Possible Biosignature Gas in Exoplanets with Anoxic Atmospheres.” Astrobiology.


The search for possible biosignature gases in habitable exoplanet atmospheres is accelerating, although actual observations are likely years away. This work adds isoprene, C5H8, to the roster of biosignature gases. We found that isoprene geochemical formation is highly thermodynamically disfavored and has no known abiotic false positives. The isoprene production rate on Earth rivals that of methane (CH4; ∼500 Tg/year). Unlike methane, on Earth isoprene is rapidly destroyed by oxygen-containing radicals. Although isoprene is predominantly produced by deciduous trees, isoprene production is ubiquitous to a diverse array of evolutionary distant organisms, from bacteria to plants and animals—few, if any, volatile secondary metabolites have a larger evolutionary reach. Although non-photochemical sinks of isoprene may exist, such as degradation of isoprene by life or other high deposition rates, destruction of isoprene in an anoxic atmosphere is mainly driven by photochemistry. Motivated by the concept that isoprene might accumulate in anoxic environments, we model the photochemistry and spectroscopic detection of isoprene in habitable temperature, rocky exoplanet anoxic atmospheres with a variety of atmosphere compositions under different host star ultraviolet fluxes. Limited by an assumed 10 ppm instrument noise floor, habitable atmosphere characterization when using James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is only achievable with a transit signal similar or larger than that for a super-Earth-sized exoplanet transiting an M dwarf star with an H2-dominated atmosphere. Unfortunately, isoprene cannot accumulate to detectable abundance without entering a run-away phase, which occurs at a very high production rate, ∼100 times the Earth's production rate. In this run-away scenario, isoprene will accumulate to >100 ppm, and its spectral features are detectable with ∼20 JWST transits. One caveat is that some isoprene spectral features are hard to distinguish from those of methane and also from other hydrocarbons containing the isoprene substructure. Despite these challenges, isoprene is worth adding to the menu of potential biosignature gases.

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Last updated on 04/21/2021