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Alien life might not be carbon-based, study finds

A recent study suggests that life on other planets might not adhere to the same chemical principles as life on Earth.
A recent study suggests that life on other planets might not adhere to the same chemical principles as life on Earth. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


Mother Horta, from Star Trek: The Original Series, may have been the first-time a sapient, non-carbon-based, life form was depicted on television. The episode was called "The Devil in the Dark" and was first aired on March 9, 1967.


The Horta were silicon-based lifeforms that looked like glowing mounds of lava and lived deep under the surface of planet Janus VI. They could tunnel through the Earth, live for thousands of years, and feed on rocks.


 
 

A recent study suggests that life on other planets (like on Janus VI) might not adhere to the same chemical principles as life on Earth. While life here is based on organic compounds like carbon, scientists have speculated for years about the possibility of life forms relying on different chemistry. This intriguing possibility has implications for the search for extraterrestrial life and understanding the origins of life itself.


The Mother Horta, from Star Trek: The Original Series, may have been the first-time an intelligent and non-carbon-based life form was depicted on television.
The Mother Horta, from Star Trek: The Original Series, may have been the first-time an intelligent and non-carbon-based life form was depicted on television. (CREDIT: Gene L. Coon / Star Trek)


Senior author of the study, Betül Kaçar, an astrobiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, emphasized the importance of exploring these possibilities to broaden our understanding of life beyond Earth. "It's important to explore these possibilities so that we have an idea of what all forms of life can look like, not just Earth life," she explained.


 
 

The study focused on a type of chemical interaction crucial for life on Earth known as autocatalysis. Autocatalytic reactions are self-sustaining, meaning they can produce molecules that promote the same reaction to occur again. This process is akin to the reproduction seen in living organisms, where one cell divides to form two, then four, and so on.


Lead author of the study, Zhen Peng, along with Kaçar and their team, sought to identify autocatalytic reactions beyond those involving organic compounds. They reasoned that understanding such reactions could provide insights into abiogenesis, the origin of life from non-living matter.


 

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The researchers scoured over two centuries of scientific literature in various languages to identify autocatalytic cycles. These cycles involve reactions that generate multiple copies of a molecule, which can then serve as starting materials for subsequent cycles, resulting in self-propagation.


The team identified 270 different autocatalytic cycles, many of which did not involve organic compounds. Surprisingly, some cycles relied on elements rarely associated with life on Earth, such as mercury and thorium. Even noble gases, which typically do not react chemically with other elements, were found to participate in autocatalytic cycles.


 
 

Kaçar highlighted the significance of these findings, stating, "It was thought that these sorts of reactions are very rare. We are showing that it's actually far from rare. You just need to look in the right place."



(LEFT) Lead author of the study, Zhen Peng, (RIGHT) Senior author of the study, Betül Kaçar. (CREDIT: University of Wisconsin-Madison)


While most of the identified cycles were relatively simple, consisting of just two reactions, some were more complex, involving four or more reactions. The researchers speculated that combining multiple cycles could lead to self-sustaining chemical reactions capable of generating a wide array of molecules and complexity.


 
 

Looking ahead, the researchers hope to experimentally test these findings to validate their potential applicability. Peng expressed optimism about the possibilities, stating, "The cycles presented here are an array of basic recipes that can be mixed and matched in ways that haven't been tried before on our planet."


However, the researchers cautioned that the plausibility of these cycles remains uncertain. Peng emphasized, "It is not guaranteed that all the examples we collated can be run in a lab or be found on other astronomical objects."


Beyond its implications for astrobiology and the origins of life, this research may have practical applications. Zach Adam, one of the study's co-authors, noted the potential for optimizing chemical synthesis and resource utilization, as well as utilizing chemical compounds for tasks such as chemical computation.


 
 

The findings of this study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, offer a fascinating glimpse into the potential diversity of life-sustaining chemistry beyond Earth. As scientists continue to explore the cosmos, these insights could prove invaluable in the search for life elsewhere in the universe.






For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 
 

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