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Life on Titan?


Does life exist on other worlds?

I don’t know about you, but the idea of life on other celestial bodies has always fascinated me. I mean, the universe is friggin massive and we can’t be the only things out here. In a quote from one of my favorite movies: “If it is just us, it’s an awfully big waste of space.”

When scientists look for things that could potentially mean life on another world, they look for stuff that living things need on this world: oxygen and water. Some worlds offer that, but they don’t always have the right temperatures or a solid planetary surface. Others have frozen water or different gases in the atmospheres. Still, the search continues…

Rather than assuming that all life must have the components we require, scientists have broadened their horizons, searching for molecules that could mimic those found in all life on earth. One of those that was recently created using computer modeling is acrylonitrile. This hydrocarbon is used to make plastics here on Earth and is found in abundance in the atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Titan has water, but temperatures there reach -179 Celcius (that’s DAMN cold!!) so for life to form, the molecules must be able to withstand the extreme cold.

One of the key ingredients for life on Earth (from bacteria to plants to us) is phospholipids. This little molecule makes up the membrane for every cell in our bodies, the membrane that surrounds and protects the DNA of eukaryotes, even the membranes that surround cellular organelles. Without this, there is no life on Earth. Phospholipids have a unique structure that allows them to orient in such a way that they separate the internal and external environments of the cell, resistant to pulling and tugging, can form attachments that are vital to multicellular organisms. But at the temperatures found on Titan, phospholipid-based life couldn’t survive as the molecule would be frozen solid.

Phospholipid bilayer: critical component of cellular membranes From Wikimedia Commons courtesy of OpenStax College

Phospholipid bilayer: critical component of cellular membranes
From Wikimedia Commons courtesy of OpenStax College

The structure phospholipids will acquire when placed in a watery environment From WikiCommons courtesy of Dennis Barten

The structure phospholipids will acquire when placed in a watery environment
From WikiCommons courtesy of Dennis Barten

This is where acrylonitrile comes in. This little molecule, according to computer modeling, has the ability to behave much like phospholipids, forming hollow balls that can be thought of as the precursors for more complex cellular life.

The theoretical azotosome that will form when acrylonitriles are placed in a water environment (according to a computer)

The theoretical azotosome that will form when acrylonitriles are placed in a water environment (according to a computer)

For now all this is hypothetical of course and testing the validity of this research is many decades away. But with the help of computers and brilliant minds willing to think outside the box , we might just discover that we’re not alone in the universe.

For more information, please read the full article here!

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5 Comments on “Life on Titan?”

  1. 22niel March 6, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    By my thinking, if the universe is anywhere near as big as we think it is, there must be life elsewhere.
    If all creation was random, the same conditions that occurred on Earth had to have happened elsewhere.
    If creation was guided, unless our creator hates life, creating so much of the universe devoid of it just seems a little pointless and masochistic.

    • drshaywest March 6, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

      I totally agree!!! I mean, even if we find a damn bacteria or plant, that would so rock my world LOL

  2. Tonya R. Moore March 6, 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    It would be a great disappointment if Earth was the only life-bearing planet in such a vast universe. I’d much rather believe that life, like galaxies and stars, is abundant and simply waiting to be discovered.

  3. cpbialois March 8, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    I’m torn between hoping any life we find will be human or alien. As cool as it’d be to find humans elsewhere, I’d love to see other races and their civilizations. I can’t decide what would be cooler. lol

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