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The Colors They Show

By cataloging Earth-based microorganisms, researchers at Cornell University hope to be better able to detect whether there are microbes living on distant planets,'s Calla Cofield writes.

Cornell's Lisa Kaltenegger and her team are studying 137 microorganisms and how they each reflect sunlight. Then with a database of these light-reflecting fingerprints, Cofield says researchers could estimate what sort of microbial life could be present on a far-flung planet based its spectrum.

The researchers note that the catalog may not come in handy if spectra don't match or if the planet in question is too cloudy or has a watery reflection.

One researcher involved in the project, Siddharth Hegde, is also studying what influences the color of these spectra. Hegde, Cofield says, has found that the microbiomes of different environments can have similar color spectra. Figuring out how that occurs, she adds, could help researchers interpret any data they get from other planets.