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This Toxic Compound on Titan Could Support Life “Not as We Know It”

Illustration of a sunrise over a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is often called an analogy to early Earth, with its thick, chemical-rich atmosphere and widespread system of flowing rivers and north polar lakes. But located almost a billion miles away from the Sun, everything on Titan is shifted into a completely different—and frigid—level of existence from that found on Earth. With surface temperatures of 300 degrees below zero F, the lakes are filled with liquid methane and what’s life-giving water here is literally solid rock there. Even the rain on Titan falls as oversized drops of ethane.

But even in this extreme cryo-environment it’s possible that life may right now exist…life relying on an entirely different chemistry than what’s possible on our planet.

Recently scientists have identified a molecule on Titan called vinyl cyanide, or acrylonitrile. To Earthly life acrylonitrile is toxic and carcinogenic; luckily for us it isn’t naturally-occurring here. But on Titan it is and apparently in quantity; it’s possible that vinyl cyanide, raining down from Titan’s atmosphere into its vast hydrocarbon lakes, could even help form methane-based cell structures in much the same way phospholipids do here.

The molecule (C2H3CN) has the ability to form membranes and, if found in liquid pools of hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface, it could form a kind of lipid-based cell membrane analog of living organisms on Earth. In other words, this molecule could stew in primordial pools of hydrocarbons and arrange itself in such a way to create a “protocell” that is “stable and flexible in liquid methane,” said Jonathan Lunine (Cornell University) who, in 2015, was a member of the team who modeled vinyl cyanide and found that it might form cell membranes.

Further evidence of life “not as we know it?” Read more on Ian O’Neill’s Astroengine blog here: Vinyl Cyanide Confirmed: Weird Form of Alien Life May Be Possible on Saturn’s Moon Titan and in a Gizmodo article by Maddie Stone here: Potential Building Block of Alien Life Spotted in Titan’s Atmosphere

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