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To find life in the universe, it helps to know what it might look like. If there are organisms on other planets that do not rely wholly on photosynthesis -- as some on Earth do not -- how might those worlds appear from light-years away?

That's among the questions University of Washington doctoral student Edward Schwieterman and astronomer Victoria Meadows of the UW-based, interdisciplinary Virtual Planetary Laboratory sought to answer in research published in May in the journal Astrobiology.

Using computer simulations, the researchers found that if organisms with nonphotosynthetic pigments -- those that process light for tasks other than energy production -- cover enough of a distant planet's surface, their spectral signal could be strong enough to be detected by powerful future telescopes now being designed. The knowledge could add a new perspective to the hunt for life beyond Earth.

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