Saturn Moon Titan could Support Life

Saturn Moon Titan could Support Life

Jason Koski/University Photography

Cornell University researchers say life on Saturn Moon Titan is possible, but it would be different from Earth.

We are constantly looking for other worlds in the universe that could sustain life. Now researchers at the Cornell University presented a model for life that could be possible on Saturn’s giant moon Titan. The Saturn moon is about twice is wide in diameter as our moon.

The life on Titan would be very different compared to life on earth. It would not be water-based, but based on liquid methane. Titan has seas of liquid methane, similar to earth having seas of water.

PIA10008 Seas and Lakes on Titan” by NASA / JPL-Caltech / USGS

The Cornell scientists say that Titan could harbor methane-based, oxygen-free cells that metabolize, reproduce and do everything life on Earth does. Their theorized cell membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds and capable of functioning in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero, is published in Science Advances, Feb. 27.

The methane based life research is led by chemical molecular dynamics expert Paulette Clancy, the Samuel W. and Diane M. Bodman Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, with first author James Stevenson, a graduate student in chemical engineering. The paper’s co-author is Jonathan Lunine, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy.

“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?’”

The chemistry engineers named their theorized cell membrane an “azotosome,” “azote” being the French word for nitrogen. “Liposome” comes from the Greek “lipos” and “soma” to mean “lipid body;” by analogy, “azotosome” means “nitrogen body.”

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. 

So is there life on Titan? This research does not claim that. It theorizes about the possibility of cell life that is based on liquid methane.  

Via the Cornell Chronicle.


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