Abstract

Pigments serve a multitude of functions in biology including light harvesting for photosynthesis, radiation protection, membrane support, and defense. The ubiquity of pigments-especially within extremophiles found in high-radiation, high-salinity, and dry environments-and their detectability via mission-ready techniques have elevated these molecules as promising targets in the search for evidence of life elsewhere. Moreover, the detection of pigments has been proposed as a "smoking gun" for extraterrestrial life as it has been suggested that these molecules cannot be generated abiotically. However, while pigments may hold promise as a biosignature, current understanding of their possible prebiotic origins remains understudied and uncertain. Better understanding of the abiotic synthesis of pigments is critical for evaluating the biogenicity of any pigment detected during missions, including by the Mars Perseverance rover or from returned samples. Compounding this uncertainty is the broad definition of pigment as it includes any compound capable of absorbing visible light and by itself does not specify a particular chemical motif. While not experimentally verified, there are promising prebiotic routes for generating pigments including hemes, chlorophylls, and carotenoids. Herein, we review the biochemistry of pigments, the inherent assumptions made when searching for these molecules in the field, their abiotic synthesis in industry and prebiotic reactions, prebiotically relevant molecules that can mimic their spectral signatures, and implications/recommendations for future work.

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