Could life forms based entirely on methane instead of oxygen on Saturn’s moon, Titan? Researchers say it’s actually possible.
A team of researchers at Cornell University has made a model of life on Titan that would metabolize and reproduce comparatively to how it does on Earth, yet without oxygen.
Chemical engineers and astronomers think that life could survive on the icy planet regardless of its harsh, unforgiving environment. Titan is secured in seas of methane instead of water, and researchers conjecture that life forms could spring up that were totally based on methane.
The theorized cell membrane would be comprised of organic nitrogen compounds and could exist in liquid methane at temperatures of 292 degrees underneath zero, as per their study, which was published in Science Advances journal this week.
The group consists of specialists from a variety of disciplines, including a specialist on Saturn’s moons, a specialist in chemical molecular dynamics, and a graduate student in chemical engineering.
Jonathan Lunine, the group’s expert on Saturn’s moons, is director of Cornell’s Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. He has been working on a grant from the Templeton Foundation to study life that doesn’t rely on water, and he contacted Cornell faculty for help with chemical modeling, and collaborated with Paulette Clancy, a chemical molecular dynamics expert.
Clancy said that she and Lunine didn’t start with any assumptions about what life would look like, yet basically took what compounds and substances were available and tried to make sense of if there was a way for life to exist.
Earth’s life is based on phospholipid bilayer membrane, which is a water-based vesicle that contains organic matter that is crucial for each cell. The vesicle is known as a liposome, and cosmologists search for life in zones that would be habitable to liposomes expecting that all life needs them. However, Clancy and Lunine chose to scrutinize that basic suspicion.
If life can be based on methane, it would change the way of life, as methane has a much lower freezing point. The group made a model of a cell membrane they named an “azotosome,” based on the French word for nitrogen which it is based on, and the models demonstrated the same stability and adaptability that the Earth-based liposome does.
Clancy and James Stevenson, a graduate student in chemical engineering who is also part of the team, were surprised by the results, according to the report.
The next step is to show how the cells would behave in a methane environment, and Lunine wants to test these ideas on Titan itself by someday sending a probe that could float on the methane seas, sampling the environment and searching for the alien life that has so far eluded scientists.