Water is a key ingredient for life on Earth. But, what if life could exist without water? That’s a question chemical engineers from Cornell University pondered.
Saturn’s moon Titan has liquid oceans, but they are not water. They are liquid methane.
So, what could life on Titan look like? It could be methane-based, oxygen-free cells that pretty much do everything life does on Earth – metabolize, reproduce, etc.
The chemical engineers were led by chemical molecular dynamics expert Paulette Clancy, the Samuel W. and Diane M. Bodman Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Their proposed cell membrane is made up of small organic nitrogen compounds and can function in Titan’s frigid liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero.
The azotosome is made from nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen molecules known to exist in the cryogenic seas of Titan, but shows the same stability and flexibility that Earth’s analogous liposome does. This came as a surprise to chemists like Clancy and Stevenson, who had never thought about the mechanics of cell stability before; they usually study semiconductors, not cells.
First author James Stevenson from Cornell University said, “Ours is the first concrete blueprint of life not as we know it.”
Clancy explains their unique look at methane-based life on Titan came about because of what the team wasn’t. “We’re not biologists, and we’re not astronomers, but we had the right tools,” Clancy said. “Perhaps it helped, because we didn’t come in with any preconceptions about what should be in a membrane and what shouldn’t. We just worked with the compounds that we knew were there and asked, ‘If this was your palette, what can you make out of that?’”