Editors note: This story is part of a Feature "The Color of Plants on Other Worlds" from the April 2008 issue of Scientific American.

What color will alien plants be? The question matters scientifically because the surface color of a planet can reveal whether anything lives there—specifically, whether organisms collect energy from the parent star by the process of photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is adapted to the spectrum of light that reaches organisms. This spectrum is the result of the parent star’s radiation spectrum, combined with the filtering effects of the planet’s atmosphere and, for aquatic creatures, of liquid water.

Light of any color from deep violet through the near-infrared could power photosynthesis. Around stars hotter and bluer than our sun, plants would tend to absorb blue light and could look green to yellow to red. Around cooler stars such as red dwarfs, planets receive less visible light, so plants might try to absorb as much of it as possible, making them look black.

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