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The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems

Chapter 1: Introduction

Nothing would advance NASA’s goal of space exploration and alter humanity’s view of its place
in the cosmos more than the discovery of extraterrestrial life. However, NASA must be equipped
to properly detect such life if encountered.
All evidence suggests that all Terran life shares a common ancestor. Radically different forms of
life are possible, but did not have their genesis on Earth. We are but one possible biochemical
Unfortunately, scientists focus too heavily on searching for life only where chemical conditions
are similar to those on Earth. For instance, NASA emphasizes searches of celestial bodies found
to contain water and other elements abundant on Earth. However, life does not require water or
Our knowledge of theoretical life is poor and must be improved.
Water, carbon and O2 are not necessary prerequisites for life. Furthermore, there are a host of
exotic forms of chemical- and energy gradients from which alien life forms could derive energy.
Darwinian processes require water or a similar solvent if genetic information is stored in
biopolymers, and the spontaneous emergence of silicon-based life is unlikely.
Characteristics of all Earthly life:
-Internal metabolism catalyzed by enzymes. Genetic information stored and passed down to
offspring in the form of biopolymers.
-Thermodynamic disequilibria are exploited for energy.
-Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur are the principal elements
comprising Terran biomolecules.
-Terran biomolecules are designed to function in water.
-All Earth life is subject to Darwinian evolution, whereby genetic material experiences random
Clay crystals can “reproduce” by generating new crystals, and can pass on “alterations” in the
form of randomly occuring flaws in crystal structure. But this is not really evolution since no
distinction is given between generating more- and less fit offspring.
While “evolution” could be replaced by an alien mechanism in which the environment totally
generated all mutations in life forms lacking genetic storage molecules, such life forms could not
become very complex.
Lateral gene transfer, coevolution of different species and organismal effects on the chemical
composition of the biosphere are also facets of “evolution.”
The ubiquity of life on Earth suggests that life can be found across the cosmos in radically
different environments.
“It is highly probable that an inevitable consequence of evolution is the elimination of radically
different biochemical lineages of life that may have formed during the earliest period of the
evolution of life. Extant Earth life is the result of either selection of the most fit lineage or
homogenization of some or all of the different lineages into a common ancestral community that
developed into the current three major lineages (domains). All have a common biochemistry
based on presumably the most “fit” molecular information strategies and energy-yielding
pathways among a potpourri of possibilities.”

Lateral gene transfer and endosymbiosis are critical elements to organismal evolution. Mutation
alone is insufficient to support evolution necessary to produce complex organisms.
Viruses may have been critical to early evolution because of their fast reproduction rates and low
reproductive fidelities.
The unity of biochemistry among all Earth’s organisms emphasizes the ability of organisms to
interact with other organisms to form coevolving communities, to acquire and transmit new
genes, to use old genes in new ways, to exploit new habitats, and, most important, to evolve
mechanisms to help to control their own evolution. Those characteristics would probably be
present in extraterrestrial life even if it had a separate origin and a unified biochemistry different
from that of Earth life.
Other possible weird forms of extraterrestrial life:
-Life form existing in gas phase
-Life form without a history of evolution
-The use of Lamarckian instead of Darwinian evolution among intelligent species capable of
manipulating their own genomes instead of relying on chance mutations.
-Synthetic, robotic life.
The committee agrees that robotic life and life capable of altering its own genome could not arise
naturally. [Presumably, technology would first enable an intelligent species with the
aforementioned abilities.] Instead, all life forms must have had primitive chemical antecedents.
The modern Earth is capable of supporting complex life forms, but is unsuited towards
supporting a spontaneous genesis of new life.
The human mind is inhibited by difficulties in imagining things that are vastly different from the
The committee looked to extreme environments on the Earth for ideas about possible alien life.
Primordeal Earth is lost forever, biologically, climactically and geologically. It is hard to
speculate about how life first began since those primitive life forms are long gone.
The Martian subsurface and the sub-ice seas of the Jovian moons are considered the only Solar
System locales outside of Earth that could support Terran life.
Thermodynamic disequilibrium is an absolute requirement for life. The presence of water is
actually unnecessary.

Chapter 2: A sketch of the chemistry behind known carbon-based life on Earth

This is an abbreviated description of the known characteristics.

Bonds connect atoms to one another. Covalent bonds involve a pair of atoms sharing one
Ions have an unequal number of protons and electrons, giving the atom a + or - charge.
Separately, electrons must be evenly spaced around an atom or they will cause it to be polar,
meaning opposite sides will have slight and opposing charges.
Electronegativity refers to the force with which atoms pull electrons towards themselves. If two,
different types of atoms are joined by a covalent bond, the overall polarity of the molecule will
vary from nonexistent to very strong depending on any disparity in electronegativity. C-H bonds
are almost perfectly balanced.
-OH has a large dipole moment, so molecules containing an alcohol group are generally polar.
Functional groups are the most important factors in understanding a molecule’s properties.
Water is an especially good solvent of polar molecules.
The vector sum of the individual dipole moments of all atoms constituting a molecule is the
overall molecular dipole moment.
Molecules contain nucleophilic and electrophilic attraction centers. These await opportunities to
bond with other molecules and ions.
Water itself is reactive since it is a polar molecule and since 2 H2O  H30+ + OH-
Reactions requiring an acidic proton can easily occur in water.
However, water’s high level of reactivity leads to degradation of many organic substances,
including DNA. Repair mechanisms are necessary.
Stronger bonds contain more energy. [More efficient combustion?]
Hydrogen bonding between water molecules accounts for the liquid phase of the substance.
Bonding characteristics are universal, so carbon-based life cannot be possible in extraterrestrial
environments of normal pressure and of more than 600 K, or at any pressure and a temperature
greater than 800 K.
Carbohydrates are the most vulnerable type of biomolecule because the carboxyl group becomes
unstable approaching the boiling point of water. Thus, scientists speculate that carbohydrates
could not have existed under prebiotic conditions, and instead awaited the emergence of cooler
environments and of cellular repair mechanisms.
There is no temperature minimum for carbon-based life. [Life forms can exist frozen solid?]
Metabolism refers to all chemical reactions that occur inside a given organism.
C-C and C-H bonds are very stable at normal temperatures and pressures, meaning they are not
readily metabolized or used by life forms.
Organisms use heteroatoms to destabilize C-C and C-H bonds.
Metabolism requires the presence of an external thermodynamic disequilibrium which in turn is
coupled to internal chemical processes.
While heteroatoms make it possible to break otherwise unbreakable bonds, catalysts are needed
to propel these reactions at acceptable speeds.
Since catalysts accelerate the formation of one product over the formation of alternative,
uncatalyzed products, catalysts also function to homogenize end products of chemical reactions.
Among Terran life forms, proteins are by far the preferred catalyst. Proteins are the optimal class
of biomolecule for this because of a number of reasons:
-Proteins can fold into many strange yet stable configurations

-The large array of possible structural and electric configurations makes proteins able to bind
with a huge variety of molecules
-The protein side chains are chemically active
-Proteins can embed cofactors to further expand the range of possible chemical reactions
Different macromolecules are structurally suited towards performing different functions. This
fact should guide and limit conjectures about what roles different macromolecules could fill in
extraterrestrial environs.
-Proteins perform catalysis and give structural support.
-Nucleic acids store genetic information.
-Carbohydrates provide main structural support.
-Lipid bilayers provide internal cellular compartmentalization.
DNA is best suited towards storing genetic information because it possesses several key features:
-Double stranded structure provides a degree of redundancy should one strand become damaged
-Method of replication is simplified by double strand
-Polyanionic backbone allows for easy extension and thus easy replication
-H-bonds between complimentary bases are sufficient to hold the molecule together while still
allowing easy separation for transcription or replication
The number of bases per codon could be more in alien DNA if a greater variety of amino acids
were commonly used.
Proteins are suited towards providing structure:
-The polyamide backbone is neutrally charged, unlike the polyanionic sugar-phosphate backbone
of DNA strands. A partial dipole exists within each AA, allowing H-bonds. This confers
structural stability for the proteins to fold into a variety of secondary structures.
-The amide bonds joining AA’s in a protein restrict rotation about the C-N bond, but are easily
hydrolyzed for intracellular recycling, providing a propitious combination of traits.
Terran life exclusively uses L-amino acids. Extraterrestrial life could just as easily use the D-
-Is the separation of one’s self from the exterior. This is a universal trait among Terran life forms.
-Allows concentration of compounds internally, accelerating rates of chemical reactions.
-Allows protection of internal molecules that would otherwise be destroyed. Especially pertinent
to maintaining a constant pH.
-Allows separation of wastes and nutrients.
The nature of the compartment itself
-Fluid rather than solid allows the cell to easily modify itself, and allows the shape to change to
engulf other materials for predation.
-Selective permeability is preferred.
All cell membranes are lipid-based.
Gram-negative prokaryotes have two lipid bilayer membranes and a sugar-based cell wall
sandwiched in between to provide structural rigidity.
Eukaryotes characteristically have internal membranes surrounding organelles to allow higher
levels of functional diversity.
Compartmentalization is also necessary for ATP-generating processes that depend upon a
chemical gradient.
Pores in rocks and cracks in quartz may have provided “compartmentalization” for very
primitive organizations before the lipid bilayer evolved.

Ribosomes—which are made of RNA—are the ancestors of all life.
Adaptation of Terran molecules to water
-Water is used on Earth as the universal solvent
-Molecules capitalize upon the (in)solubilities of polar and nonpolar parts in water. Proteins, for
instance, incorporate amino acids with different polarities to affect folding at key points.
-Hydroxyls and charges are common in organic molecules since they promote dissolving in
-DNA and RNA have charged backbones to keep them dissolved and from leaving the nuclear
Disadvantages surrounding the use of water
-Since water is has both nucelophilic and electrophilic centers, it can react with a broad variety
of molecules. This commonly causes severance of the amide bonds in proteins, which leads to
the formation of free AA’s.
-Water also destroyed nucleic acid bases, albeit at a slow rate.
-Both of the aforementioned problems are mitigated with cellular repair mechanisms.

Chapter 3: Pushing the boundaries of life

The requirements and characteristics of Terran life should serve as a guide for detecting
extraterrestrial life, yet it must be remembered that alien life could still be radically different.
Our ability to speculate about the limits of alien life is handicapped by our lack of knowledge
about the limits here on Earth. For instance, most extremophiles have yet to be discovered and
understood, and it is suspected that many could be considerably different in many aspects from
other life forms.
-D. radiodurans can tolerate radiation levels higher than any found on Earth.
-E. coli can withstand water pressures 10 times higher than those found at even the deepest ocean
trenches on the planet.
-A microorganism isolated from deep-sea thermal vents might be using “black-body radiation”
from sulfides for a type of photosynthesis.
-Other microorganism discoveries have increased the maximum temperature limit for life to
121ºC and the minimum pH to below zero.
-One hypothermophilic microorganism also lacks the 16S consensus sequence found in all other
life forms.
Carbon is thought to be the ideal base element for biomolecules since it is abundant throughout
the universe and forms the most stable bonds.
It is thought that the structures of such carbon-based biomolecules could be radically different on
other planets to confer endurance and functionality in harsh environments.
Advances in molecular synthesis are allowing scientists to experiment by constructing novel
metabolic pathways, enzymes and soon entire organisms to investigate the limits of life.
Microorganism communities totally decoupled from natural photosynthesis-dependent
ecosystems have been found in deep sea environments. The communities rely on highly exotic
metabolic processes.
Life evolves fro nothingness given certain chemical and environmental factors. The full range of
such factors is unknown, so it is possible that a planet or moon containing all of the necessary
elements for organic life might not harbor it because some key stage in the planet’s chemical or
geological evolution never occurred. Conversely, planets very hostile to most Terran life may
have ecosystems of exotic life forms.
It is entirely possible that celestial bodies could be seeded with life or its precursors via
meteoroids. Thus, the first type of planet or moon described in the preceding note could still
develop an ecosystem based on an infusion of extraplanetary life.
While the scientific community is beholden to the idea that the search for life must focus on
water-rich planets with Earthly conditions, it is entirely possible that life may exist in very harsh
extraterrestrial environments, like the freezing methane seas of Titan, the sulfuric atmosphere of
Venus, or even the Jovian atmosphere.
Across the Earth, the presence of life is the rule rather than the exception.
-Life forms have adapted themselves to almost every known environment on the planet.
-Even the driest deserts contain bacteria in their soils, albeit at lower concentrations.
The true extent of extremophiles is unknown and requires more study.
The most inhospitable environments have high salt concentrations and extreme temperatures.
Nonpolar solvents are highly toxic to Terran life forms because the solvents can integrate with
and pass through cell membranes, causing leakage of critical organelles and solutes.

Carbon-based life requires water. When in organic solvents, the life forms must have a way to
extract or produce their own water. Some bacteria have demonstrated these properties.
A specialized, durable cell membrane would be needed for a bacterium living in an organic
Microorganisms in lab settings have been grown at temperatures as low as –15ºC and as high as
Eukaryotes are not known to survive more than 60ºC.
A high temperature causes water to boil off, and water is critical to all known life.
Freezing temperatures kill cells by forming ice crystals that lyse their membranes and organelles.
If cells can be frozen very quickly and thawed just as fast, the crystals don’t have a chance to
form and the cells can be preserved for long periods. The process of converting water from a
liquid to a solid state quickly enough to avoid ice crystal formation is known as “vitrification.”
Extremely high solute concentrations can keep water in liquid form below -30°C.
Other forms of metabolic activity have been observed at even lower temperatures.
If a suitable solvent mixture is used, some organic life might be able to exist right down to
absolute zero. This raises the possibility that life could exist on Mars or the moons of Jupiter.
If life is indeed capable of living in hostile environments found outside the Earth, then there is
the real possibility that the same life could survive in space, and that panspermia—the
interplanetary transfer of life—could occur. Even if it were naturally possible, panspermia would
almost always be confined within solar systems.
If certain biochemical similarities were found between terrestrial and extraterrestrial life
elsewhere in the Solar System, panspermia might be responsible for originating life on Earth.
Endospore-forming bacteria and radiation-resistant microorganisms are two life forms best able
to survive in space.
Endospore-forming bacteria
-During times of stress (low food, poor environmental conditions) certain bacteria and fungi can
form tough spores that are essentially seeds that reawaken and grow into new bacteria and fungi
when conditions are better.
-Bacterial endospores millions of years old have been revived by scientists.
-These endospores must be able to resist the mutating effects of high-energy light like UV light
in order to survive in space.
-Pigments absorb radiation before it can hit DNA [hence the reason why darker skin is more
adapted for living near the equator] and cells have internal DNA repair mechanisms to fix
damage after the fact.
-UV light causes thymine dimerization which prevents DNA replication.
-Ionizing radiation cuts DNA strands at multiple points.
-D. radiodurans is the most radiation-resistant bacterium known on Earth. It could survive
conditions in space.
-Radiation-resistant microorganisms, even as endospores, would be destroyed by dessication and
by vacuum pressure after a few days in space. If they were trapped inside a crystal or inside
rocks, or if associated with the proper sugar solution, they could be insulated from this.
-Bacteria could theoretically survive atmospheric reentry and the kinetic impact of hitting a
planet’s surface at high speed.
-Some microorganisms that attach to surfaces produce multilayered, protective biofilms made of
sugars that could allow them to survive in space for long periods.
-More research is needed to determine whether terrestrial microorganisms could survive in space.

Though Terran life is incredibly diverse, all Earthly organisms share many key biochemical
features, including the use of DNA or RNA,
Limits of anthropocentric biochemistry (Terran life)
-DNA absorbs protons at high acidity, destroying its usefulness since the complimentary base
pairing (A-T, C-G) cannot occur at pH 4 and below. Terran life therefore did not evolve in acidic
-Organisms that live in highly acidic environments do so by actively pumping protons out of
their cells to maintain an intracellular pH of 4+.
-Guanine, thymidine and uracil are weak acids and lose a proton at pH 10 and above, which
again fatally disrupts complimentary base pairing.
-Organisms living in high pH environments must therefore pump protons in to survive.
-At extreme pH’s, other important, non-genetic biomolecules are also destroyed.
Assuming that the first DNA/RNA Terran organisms were not sophisticated enough to pump
protons in or out of themselves, they must have originated in an environment with pH range of 5-
Opportunities for research:
-Study how biofilms might protect microorganisms from the harsh conditions of space.
-Search for Terrestrial extremophiles that might be biochemically unrelated to known life.
-Determine whether the current theoretical boundaries within which life can exist are absolute or
merely just specific to Earth.

Chapter 4: Alternatives to Terran biochemistry in water

Everything that is known about life on Earth suggests that liquid water is required for life, and
internal pH must be approximately neutral.
The authors consider the possibility that water may not be necessary for alien life.
Synthetic biology involves the application of chemistry and engineering to create novel life
forms. This new science can also be used to understand the biochemical limits of life by
attempting to create chemically theoretical organisms.
Terran nucleic acids are not the only structures that can support genetic-like behavior
-Normal DNA is not the only possible organic receptacle for genetic information.
-The artificially expanded genetic information system (AEGIS) has been developed for human
genetic analysis. Twelve artificial nuceleobases have been created, which together form 6 unique
base pairs. This synthetic genetic system is as stable as normal DNA.
-The artificial nucleobases are very similar to the natural ones.
-In lab studies, genomes containing synthetic nucleobases could fully interact with natural
biochemicals and could also perform evolution and normal cell functions.
Normal DNA detection methods fail to recognize synthetic nucleobases, meaning astronauts and
space probes could overlook such life on other celestial bodies if equipped only with traditional
DNA tools. Such life may even exist here on Earth and may have gone undetected.
Attempts have also been made to determine if ribose is an essential element to the DNA/RNA
backbone. After experimenting, different groups found that, while ribose was the most stable and
the most selective, other sugars could substitute with difficulty. Unlike with the synthetic
nucleobases, DNA and RNA with non-ribose backbones could not interact with normal
Stable, synthetic amino acids have also been created and have been shown to form stable
proteins. Normal terran ribosomes can work with these.
Bain et. Al (1993) also showed that a DNA strand composed of synthetic nucleobases and thus
possessing a different or enlarged variety of codons could still be read by terran ribosomes, and
that the novel codons could also instruct the ribosomes to construct proteins out of synthetic
amino acids.
In summary, it is entirely possible for an organism to use different nucleobases and a different set
of amino acids. This may overlap with or exclude the terran normal. Such life forms may already
exist on Earth and as yet may have gone undetected, or for whatever reason, such life forms may
be at an evolutionary disadvantage with normal terran life and may have died out. The authors do
not discuss alternatives to the ribose-based DNA/RNA backbone, suggesting it is the weakest
biological alternative.
Repeating charge may be universal in genetic polymers in water.
-The DNA/RNA backbone is composed of an alternating sugar-phosphate polymer. Ribose has
no charge while the phosphate group, PO4-, has a negative charge. Thus, the backbone is riddled
with evenly spaced negative charges.
-Experiments were performed in which the PO4- was replaced by a neutral molecule. While the
DNA/RNA strands were stable and could perform some functions, they were inferior in
important respects. The lengths of the synthetic strands determined their functionality, and
disruptive bonding occurred on the sugar-phosphate backbones.

-Scientists now believe that the DNA/RNA backbone must possess charges to move reactions
away from the backbone and onto the reactive edges of the nucleobases and to keep the molecule
taut for easier templating (the uncharged DNA/RNA folded up easily).
-There is no reason why the DNA/RNA backbone couldn’t use a positive charge as a stabilizing
force instead of a negative one.
True Darwinian evolution requires DNA/RNA to make inexact copies of itself.
A repeating dipole may be universal in polymeric catalytic molecules in water
-Normal amino acids consist of a positive ammonia group, a variable center group, and a
negative carboxyl group. The opposing charges at either end are necessary to form amino acid
polymers (peptides and proteins), and are essential to protein folding.
-Proteins must fold to perform catalytic reactions, which itself is an indispensable element to
organic life.
-The alternating ammonia and carboxyl groups in terran amino acids need not be present. Other
molecules may substitute, so long as they have the same charge properties.
Is water uniquely suited as a biosolvent?
-Dipole interactions are used to assemble supermolecules.
-Dipole interactions are stronger in nonpolar solvents than they are in water
-But a repeating charge makes a molecule soluble in water and insoluble in organic liquids.
-the DNA/RNA analog cannot function as a genetic receptacle if is insoluble.
-Molecular genetics is only possible in polar solvents.
Opportunities for research
-NASA must gather more information about different planets and moons so that synthetic
biologists can determine what types of life are possible given the constraints imposed by the
chemicals present.
-Much research has yet to be done in the field of synthetic biology.
-NASA should attempt to determine which nucleobases and DNA/RNA backbone sugars would
have formed under ancient Earth (prebiotic) conditions.

Chapter 5: Origin of life

Dioxygen is poisonous to primitive life. Thus, new life forms could not evolve from inanimate
matter on the Earth.
It is possible that Earth’s life may have been ultimately extraterrestrial in origin. Life throughout
the solar system might share a common ancestor.
Some argue that RNA was the first genetic molecule. Others say that genetic information may
have been stored in mineral crystal lattices.
Monomers may have carried the first genes.
Many different models show how conditions on primordial Earth could have easily allowed for
the spontaneous creation of organic molecules.
Meteorites have been found to contain amino acids, proving that life’s precursors can evolve
The complete lack of polypeptides in meteorites suggests that amino acid assembly may not be
automatic and may require cells.
Phosphorous-based life could not have evolved early in the Universes’ history since the element
is produced by stars only as they and the Universe age.
The chemical complexity of RNA suggests that it could not have spontaneously evolved. Other
catalysts and molecules of genetic storage of more primitive structure must have preceded it.
The authors recommend further research into RNA antecedents. Space probes may not be able to
recognize such primitive life if tooled only for protein detection.
The carbon in a carbon dioxide molecule is the most oxidized it can be. The carbon in methane is
the most reduced it can be. In Earth’s O2 atmosphere, the pressure for thermodynamic
equilibrium pushes all non-CO2 and non-pure carbon molecules towards combustion and decay.
Organic molecules contain Hydrogen. Various energy sources, such as UV light, can catalyze
reactions in which organic molecules decay and release H+, which can combine with one another
to form H2. This is an extremely light molecule that actually can escape a planet’s gravity and
float into space. The process of Hydrogen removal and carbon-based molecule oxidation is thus
continuous and irresistible: Organic molecules represent carbon in the process of oxidation. All
carbon will eventually end up pure or in CO2 form. As the Hydrogen departs, the organic
molecules must become larger to remain stable.
Experiments have also cast some doubt on the idea that life is an inevitable consequence given
the right chemicals and environment. The basis of such a theory rests on the self-organization of
organic molecules. However, numerous experiments have shown that, in a chemically
heterogeneous environment reminiscent of prebiotic Earth, it is almost impossible for any useful
self-organization to occur since different molecules are constantly negating each others’ effects,
and since more sophisticated molecules can be easily driven to extinction by more numerous
primitive molecules. The authors conclude that organic self-organization cannot be spontaneous
and must have energy input to overcome chemical interference.
Furthermore, the authors attack the soundness of the theory of ribose’s spontaneous abiotic
generation, citing the fact that, in simulated prebiotic environments, ribose readily decomposes,
especially in the presence of calcium hydroxide. Thus, ribose could not have been a component
of the first genetic material, and life must have evolved before both DNA and RNA.
Given these realities, the first genetic material probably did not contain carbohydrate backbones,
and was instead much hardier in structure.

The “central paradox” undercutting the theory that the first genetic material was composed of a
polymeric replicator is the fact that there is no proposed control mechanism whereby such
molecules could direct and halt their own growth: While laboratory studies have shown that
complex organic molecules can form from reactions among common ones present in primordial
Earth, the reactions are typically uncontrolled polymerizations that in the end yield useless
Water’s nucleophilicity also inhibits amino acid dehydration synthesis and degrades DNA by
altering ambient thermodynamics. This fact leads the authors to believe that life must have begun
in the form of a collection of small molecules instead of biopolymers (such as DNA, RNA and
Some supporters of the RNA origin theory have postulated that adjoined minerals could have
stabilized the molecule against the damaging environment. One possibility is a union with
borate. It is also noted that borate, which occurs as runoff from mountain erosion, is soluble in
water and would have been present in ancient environments also suited for the synthesis of
The most recent Mars probe discovered that mineral composition makes the presence of borate in
the soil likely.
It is possible that RNA-based life may have first evolved on Mars, where conditions for such
were favorable, and that this life may then have somehow arrived on the Earth, where conditions
for such spontaneous generation were unfavorable.
However, there are problems with the RNA-borate hypothesis. First, while borate stabilizes
ribose, it also blocks the ribose’s incorporation into the larger RNA unit, and thus there must be a
mechanism for removal. Second, there are six other components to RNA, and it has yet to be
explained how all could spontaneously fuse together in the right arrangement to create RNA.
“Replicator theories” that tout the spontaneous formation of self-reproducing genetic material as
the first form of life are highly improbable given the laws of chemistry and what is known about
prevailing conditions throughout the universe and on ancient Earth. If this in fact were the only
way life could emerge, most life throughout the Universe would be the product of panspermia.
However, all sides agree on some basic ideas regarding the origin of life:
-It ultimately came from small organic molecules produced through abiotic processes
-The molecules were capable of self-organization, in which they produced more of themselves or
more of some other useful molecules
-An external source of energy would be needed to drive the anti-entropic self-organization
The “metabolism first” theory is at odds with the “replicator theory” and states that—instead of a
large, information-bearing molecule—the first life forms were simple organic molecules that
aggregated around and perpetuated one another due to mutually catalytic chemical reactions. In
this case, the genetic information of the life forms exists as the identity and relative
concentrations of the different chemical substances.
Growth of this type of “organism” would occur as the molecules converted foreign matter into
their own form, and reproduction would occur when one part of the “organism” were physically
separated from the rest for whatever reason.
Computer simulations have supported the feasibility of such an occurrence.
Darwinian natural selection would then lead to evolution among these different chemical
Alexander Oparin originated the “metabolism first” theory in the early 20th century.

Other details:
-Energy was probably obtained from either the sun or from redox reactions between volcanic
effluents and the atmosphere.
-These life forms could arise in deep-sea vents, mounds, at the sea-atmosphere interface, or in
small pools of warm water.
-The colonies of interacting molecules would have to be shielded from the rest of the
environment to prevent fatal diffusion. Barriers could have consisted of spontaneously forming
vesicles, aerosol sprays from ocean surfaces, or electrostatic forces on mineral surfaces.
-The organic molecules could form aqueously, in the air, or be delivered from space.
-It is unknown whether the first molecule colonies had a complete or only partial chemical
reaction cycle.
The authors believe they these organisms could have used energy to gain carbon from CO2:
-Irreversible, thermodynamically favorable reactions could be coupled to a source of energy.
These reactions thus serve as “driver reactions,” and by the Law of Mass Action, other reactions
(possibly unfavorable) that produce reactants for the driver reactions become favorable as well.
-Through a multi-step process, the product of the driver reaction could be reconverted into
reactant, creating an energy-driven cycle that would crowd out other reactions.
-The organism gains carbon from CO2 every cycle, physically growing.
While there are some requirements for “metabolism-first” life, they are far more lenient than
those for “replicator life” and permit a very wide diversity of life forms with different chemical
Research into possible “metabolism first” organisms must be done to instruct future space probes
what to look for. The first and most important step would be to characterize potential driver
Work needs to be done finding mechanisms for abiotic synthesis of ribose and also for
determining whether ribose assembly could occur in non-water solvents. Mineral-based life
could also be explored on Earth.
The authors recommend equipping space probes to Mars, Europa and elsewhere with instruments
capable of detecting nucleic acids and aggregations of lighter elements and organic carbon.

Chapter 6: Why Water? Toward more exotic habitats

A liquid solvent in general is viewed as an almost certain prerequisite for life owing to the
medium’s superior ability to support chemical reactions relative to substances in solid or gas
phases. Reactions can take place faster, and in a medium with constant electrochemical
In general, the authors found the idea that water is a necessary component of life to be
geocentric, and they effort to explain point-by-point.
There are two forms of water ice: Ice 1 and Ice 2. The former floats while the latter sinks due to
differences in density. By forming a frozen crust on the surface of a body of water, Ice 1 can
insulate the lower portion from freezing, permitting life to continue.
Ice 1 is more stable and thus more common.
Ice also reflects sunlight, hence reflecting heat, lowering temperatures further, and causing the
formation of more ice. Thus, the presence of Ice 1 can be disadvantageous to life considering the
fact that it contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle of global cooling and can lead to potentially
injurious periods of temperature extremes. In fact, past worldwide glaciations were caused by
this process.
This fact is to water’s detriment as a solvent, as the runaway ice cycle destabilizes conditions
within the solvent by converting much of it to solid phase.
Without adequate atmospheric pressure, ice also sublimes directly into water vapor. This is why
liquid water can only exist for very short periods of time on the Martian surface. Formamide is a
polar solvent that has a liquid temperature range of 255-480 K (water is only 273-373 K) and
also exists as a liquid under most pressures, making it—in these respects—a more stable solvent.
Nonpolar solvents
-Hydrocarbons such as methane have boiling points higher than water.
-There is strong evidence to suggest that seas of methane exist on Titan.
-Water might remain liquid on Titan due to warmth from “impacts” and may exist in solution
with liquid methane, with each globule of water separate from the next, creating different, closed
environments capable of supporting Darwinian evolution.
-Liquid hydrocarbons would not deaminate nucleobases like water.
-Carbon is also freely available on Titan in other forms.
-The authors conclude that all of the requisites for organic life exist on Titan, and that NOT
finding any upon exploration would be a surprise.
Cryosolvents are solvents that are liquid only at very low temperatures and that may support life.
-The gas giants have large quantities of the cryosolvent dihydrogen, but high temperatures and
pressures severely limit the size of the planetary “shells” in which it can exist in liquid phase.
It has also been noted that any life evolving on these planets would have to be motile to avoid
being flushed out of the habitable zone by convection currents.
-Dinitrogen is common on Triton—Neptune’s biggest moon. Silicon-based life would also find
dinitrogen a much more conducive solvent than water.
Life in the gas phase
-Organic molecules generally become unstable over 500 K.
-Gas-phase lifeforms may exist in the vacuum of space, though they would have to find a way to
keep from dispersing and to protect some components from celestial radiation.
Life in the solid phase
-Ice is known to exist in comets and meteoroids throughout the Solar System.

-It is also known that the ice contains primitive organic molecules.
-Thus, it is possible that life forms with extremely slow metabolisms could have evolved inside
the ice on these distant space objects.
Opportunities for research
-Formamide is, in many respects, a polar solvent that supports life better than water. It can also
function as a precursor of adenine and can support the formation of nucleoside phosphates. Its
potential as a prebiotic solvent should be investigated.
-The committee considers Titan to be the most likely spot for extraterrestrial life, and suggests
NASA consider reordering exploratory spaceflights accordingly.
-Research into the solubility of organic molecules in common Solar System cryosolvents at
relevant temperatures and pressures should be conducted.

Chapter 7: Life detection and biomarkers

Most molecules can exist in different stereoisomeric forms, meaning the constituent atoms can
be arranged in different spatial orientations. In the wild, the different stereoisomers are found in
equal proportions, but when organic life is present, one form will heavily predominate because
otherwise necessary biochemical reactions could not take place.
Racemization is the process by which the enantiomer gradient disappears, and is a natural
process following the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While this can obscure the existence of
life, it can also be a useful way to gauge the age of dead organisms if the rate of racemization is
Gas chromatography would be the most practical way to measure stereoisomer levels.
Interestingly, the Murchison and Murray meteorites had unequal levels of stereoisomers among
the amino acids. While an obscure natural process may have caused this, it might also indicate
the existence of primitive life in the asteroid belt.
Multistep metabolic pathways have certain thermodynamic characteristics, among them being
that the first (regulatory) and last steps are energetically downhill, and most steps in between are
close to equilibrium to avoid wasting energy. Space probes could analyze chemical mixtures for

Chapter 8: Conclusions and recommendations

Human beings are functionally more flexible and capable than even the most sophisticated robot,
meaning that manned space missions—despite their high cost—have value.
However, a human presence on a different celestial body raises the threat of biocontamination.
The likelihood of finding life on Mars and Europa is high. Life may also exist in the Venusian
atmosphere in the aqueous environment of the atmospheric aerosols.
The ability to recognize alien life forms in extraterrestrial environments must be improved. Areas
for improvement fall under three rubrics: laboratory studies, field studies and space studies.
Laboratory studies
-Better understand the chemical origins of life
-Further studies of chirality
-Work to better understand how different environmental conditions can affect an organism’s
ability to break down and use key elements.
Field studies
-There exist environments on Earth—deep underground, in the deep sea, and in the upper
atmosphere—where microscopic-based ecosystems with novel metabolic processes could exist
and harbor organisms that could realistically exist on other planets and moons.
-Research must be conducted to identify non-selfish RNA’s that actually perform physical
functions like proteins. These will most likely be found in archaic bacteria.
-Search for organisms with strange metabolic pathways.
-Search for organisms that use minerals in place of proteins for enzymes, or that use a mix of the
-Search for organisms living in environments lacking certain minerals, and determining if they
can substitute present minerals for missing minerals in biochemical pathways (i.e.—ATP with
arsenic in place of phosphorus).
-Search for life that can extract nutrients from rocks.
-Study of the resistance of microorganisms that form biofilms on minerals to the harsh conditions
of interplanetary transport.
-Search for life that uses non-nucleic acids for genetic storage.
Space Studies
-The aforementioned studies will have negligible cost and are within the means of NASA’s
current funding.
-Creation of new biodetection machines designed to recognize hypothetical yet chemically
plausible organisms.
-Development of a means to determine whether Terrestrial life and life found elsewhere in the
Solar System share a common origin or initiated separately.
-Organic-molecule detectors must be included on all Mars and Jupiter missions. This could help
settle the replicators- or metabolism-first debate.
-In light of the recent revelations that liquid water and ammonia exist on the Jupiter moons
Europa and Enceladus, NASA should consider re-ordering deep space missions to allow
exploration of these bodies to commence as soon as possible.
-Extrasolar imaging capabilities must be enhanced. Signs of water and tectonic activity must be
searched for (the latter indicates possible hydrothermal life).
-Studies of extrasolar atmospheres devoid of oxygen might also allow us to better understand
conditions on prebiotic Earth.