Piqued Lite - 7/29/2017 - Vinyl Cyanide Confirmed On Titan, Opening The Door For Potential, Non-Lipid Membrane Based Cellular Life
When the layman thinks of extraterrestial life, Mars is usually the first place that comes to mind.
Popular science fiction has inculcated this mind set for nearly 100 years. The notion of Martians has its origins in the zeitgeist back with Orsen Welles and his War of The Worlds radio special, essentially a simulated martian invasian broadcast across the United States.
From the perspective of researchers, Mars has been a tempting and logical target in the search for life. It's our nearest neighbor, second to Venus, but much easier to investigate with probes in comparison to Venus because of the relatively mild atmospheric conditions. Plus it shares, in broad strokes, many Earth like qualities.
However, in terms of the likelyhood of discovering living cells, Mars may not be the top contender in the solar system. Fans of Arthur C Clark will often think of the seas of Europa as an alternative hot contender for life.
Today, however, a new report from the journal Science Advances adds further support for another contender for finding simple, incipient life - Saturn's moon, Titan.
Let's be clear, this study is NOT saying there is life on Titan. What the study found was that Titan almost certainly has a chemical on it, in some abundance, called Vinyl Cyanide. Let's explain why this is significant.
Titan is a pretty cold place, much colder than Earth.
There is water on its surface, but it's probably frozen. There is also liquid on its surface, but this liquid is probably not water, but instead liquid hydrocarbons, like methane. Moreover, Titan has a complex, nitrogen based atmosphere, along with a variety of other chemicals that make it a potential hot bed for the evolution of incipient, simple living cells.
In order for a living cell to develop, a cell needs structure - which is to say, a place wherein the various reactions that constitute life can take place. On earth, most living cells are surrounded by "lipid membranes", usually a "lipid bilayer" made out of phospholipids..
The problem is it's too damn cold on Titan for this lipid membrane structure to survive. This bodes poorly for Earth-like cellular structures on Titan - but luckily life has other tricks up its sleeve.
Researchers have run simulations looking for chemicals which might be able to facilitate the creation of cell membrane-like structures in the atmospheric conditions found on Titan.
In running these simulations, one major candidate that stood out was vinyl cyanide - but until now no one knew for sure whether the chemical was actually present on Titan.
Which leads us to the conclusion of the report - there is, almost certainly, vinyl cyanide on Titan, perhaps a lot of it in the southern hemisphere. As a result, there is also a higher overall chance, based on computer simulations, that incipient cellular life may be developing on the planet, either in its atmosphere or, more likely in its liquid hydrocarbon lakes.
This may not be as exciting as finding a Martian spaceship - but it's still a big step toward the eventual , definitive discovery of life on a planet other than our own.
Picture Source Nasa Public Domain via Wikipedia