Life in the Universe: “It May Not Even Have a Genetic Code”

Biocentric Why haven't we discovered signs of life beyond Earth? As Carl Sagan said, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This thought is well known in other fields of research. Astrophysicists, for example, spent decades studying and searching for black holes before accumulating today’s compelling evidence that they exist. The same can be said for the search for room-temperature superconductors, proton decay, violations of special relativity, or for that matter the Higgs boson. Much of the most important and exciting research in astronomy and physics is concerned exactly with the study of objects or phenomena whose existence has not been demonstrated.

The search for life should not and cannot be limited to the search for Earth-like features. This cosmic view of the diverse nature of extraterrestrial life, is a revolutionary perspective which has the potential to make a great impact on our way of thinking as profound as the Copernican revolution.

We should be careful if we ever happen upon extraterrestrial life, Hawking warns. Alien life may not have DNA like ours: "Watch out if you would meet an alien. You could be infected with a disease with which you have no resistance."

Recently, scientists are content to define life using the "chemical Darwinian definition" that involves "self-sustaining chemical systems that undergo evolution at the molecular level." There are in fact a number of genetic-studies which purport to demonstrate that the common ancestors for Earthly life forms may have first began to form billions of year before the Earth was created. It has been speculated the first steps toward actual life may have begun with self-replicating riboorganisms whose descendants fell to Earth and other planets through mechanisms of panspermia, triggering the RNA world and then life as we know it. Life on some planets may be like life on Earth. Life on other worlds may have a completely different chemistry, and may not even possess a genetic code. 

Life that may have been originated elsewhere, even within our own solar system, could be unrecognizable compared with life here and thus could not be detectable by telescopes and spacecraft landers designed to detect terrestrial biomolecules or their products. Life might be based on molecular structures substantially different from those on Earth.

What we normally think of as 'life' is based on chains of carbon atoms, with a few other atoms, such as nitrogen or phosphorous, Hawking observed in his lecture, Life in the Universe. We can imagine  that one might have life with some other chemical basis, such as silicon, "but carbon seems the most favorable case, because it has the richest chemistry."

Organic molecules are now known to be common throughout the universe. Life, then, is assumed to be carbon-based.The Earth was formed largely out of the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen. Somehow, Hawking observes, "some of these atoms came to be arranged in the form of molecules of DNA. One possibility is that the formation of something like DNA, which could reproduce itself, is extremely unlikely. However, in a universe with a very large, or infinite, number of stars, one would expect it to occur in a few stellar systems, but they would be very widely separated."

Other prominent scientists have warned that we humans may be blinded by our familiarity with carbon and Earth-like conditions. In other words, what we’re looking for may not even lie in our version of a “sweet spot”. Even here on Earth, one species “sweet spot” is another species worst nightmare. In any case, it is not beyond the realm of feasibility that our first encounter with extraterrestrial life will not be carbon-based.

As John Baross of the University of Washington has suggested, our present knowledge of physics and chemistry suggests that an organism could have an entire non-carbon-based metabolism such as silicon, which like carbon, can form four bonds. The greater reactivity of silicon compared with carbon may be an advantage in cold environments. Thus, its chemical and structural flexibility in non-aqueous environments can provide analogues to most of the functions of terrestrial biochemistry.

Silicon can form long chains as silanes, silicones, and silicates. Among them, silanes have been considered the most proper compounds to sustain life because they present the closest analog to hydrocarbons, which are so important to terrestrial life processes. However, such silicon-based life would have to be different from life as we know on Earth.

Alternative biochemists speculate that there are several atoms and solvents that could potentially spawn life. Because carbon has worked for the conditions on Earth, we speculate that the same must be true throughout the universe. In reality, there are many elements that could potentially do the trick. Even counter-intuitive elements such as arsenic may be capable of supporting life under the right conditions. Even on Earth some marine algae incorporate arsenic into complex organic molecules such as arsenosugars and arsenobetaines.

Several other small life forms use arsenic to generate energy and facilitate growth. Chlorine and sulfur are also possible elemental replacements for carbon. Sulfur is capably of forming long-chain molecules like carbon. Some terrestrial bacteria have already been discovered to survive on sulfur rather than oxygen, by reducing sulfur to hydrogen sulfide.

Nitrogen and phosphorus could also potentially form biochemical molecules. Phosphorus is similar to carbon in that it can form long chain molecules on its own, which would conceivably allow for formation of complex macromolecules. When combined with nitrogen, it can create quite a wide range of molecules, including rings.

So what about water? Isn’t at least water essential to life?

Not necessarily. Ammonia, for example, has many of the same properties as water. An ammonia or ammonia-water mixture stays liquid at much colder temperatures than plain water. Such biochemistries may exist outside the conventional water-based "habitability zone". One example of such a location would be right here in our own solar system on Saturn's largest moon Titan.

Hydrogen fluoride methanol, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride, and formamide have all been suggested as suitable solvents that could theoretically support alternative biochemistry. All of these “water replacements” have pros and cons when considered in our terrestrial environment. What needs to be considered is that with a radically different environment, comes radically different reactions. Water and carbon might be the very last things capable of supporting life in some extreme planetary conditions.

Casey Kazan 


New Scientist

Alternative Biochemistry

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily