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  (Source: Popular Mechanics)
Cornell University Chemical Engineers and Astronomers map out the possibility for non-water based life chemistry

Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in 1962 inspired by, as he put it, movieland’s lack of imagination regarding monsters and what he considered to be science fiction.  One of the important questions he set out to address in this essay was "what about life not as we know it?" With his background in biochemistry, he breaks down life-as-we-know-it beyond physiology and explores the basic chemistry of life and its support mechanism, water, and what could be possible in a world based on a different set of chemical compounds.

By over-simplifying the process of life-as-we-know-it down to a basic function and an essential medium for the process to be carried out in, Asimov establishes a basis for how life exists in its most basic form.  Which by this simplified method is a set of nucleic acid molecules controlling chemical reactions with proteins, using water as the base medium.

This basic idea is what inspired chemical engineers and astronomers at Cornell University in New York to establish a new experimental model simulating the chemistry of a possible form of life-not-as-we-know-it. The new model abandons the liquid water requirement of terrestrial life-as-we-know-it and also expands the temperature range that life might exist at.

In doing so, it suggests that life could exist outside what astronomers call the circumstellar habitable zone.  Scientists define this region as the zone in which water exists in liquid form, a necessity for harboring water-based alien life forms.

"Ours is the first concrete blueprint of life not as we know it," said graduate student James Stevenson, first author of the research.

Saturn's moon Titan
Liquid lakes of methane on Saturn's moon Titan [Image Source: Steven Hobbs]

The theoretical life forms they refer to as azotosome, are made up of nitrogen compounds, which can survive in conditions unlike what are found here on Earth.  More specifically, researchers believe this alternative xenochemistry could thrive in a methane-rich environment which lacks liquid water.

Azotome
The azotosome produced during computer simulations is pictured here.
[Image Source: Science Advances/Cornell Univ.]

This could open the door to many new potential locations for alien life.  Saturn's moon Titan for example, which has seas of liquid methane as opposed to water, could sustain a methane-based life form such as this as it contains the essential molecules to make it possible – nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen.

The Cornell research team has published a paper on the work in the journal Science Advances.

Cornell Azotosome
Left to right: graduate student James Stevenson, astronomer Jonathan Lunine and chemical engineer Paulette Clancy pose with images of their simulated nitrogen vesicle and an image of Saturn from NASA's Cassini probe. [Image Source: Cornell University]

Professor Paulette Clancy, who is the study's senior author, believes the next step is to demonstrate how the organism would behave in a non-water based environment such as the liquid methane oceans on Titan.  She is leading molecular dynamics studies to examine how these exotic alternative xenochemistries might operate.

Meanwhile the best and brightest minds in the science fiction community continue the thought exercise of dreaming up more and more exotic potential forms of life.  In futurist Robert L. Forward's masterwork Dragon's Egg the author raises the idea of lifeforms of alternative chemistry existing under the extreme gravity of a neutron star.  Star Trek, Babylon 5, and other science fiction series have also explored the idea of energy life forms.

Could such wild forms of life exist?  It's debatable.  But we won't know for sure until we explore the dark reaches of our own galaxy and the dark reaches of the universe beyond it.

Sources: Science Advances [abstract], Cornell Chronicle [press release], via The DailyMail





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