Oct 20, 2018 | Updated: 04:34 PM EDT

Methane Based Life Could Exist on Saturn’s Moon, Titan

Feb 28, 2015 07:22 PM EST

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In a new study published this week by researchers from Cornell University, the team of researchers has modeled a new methane-based life form that can metabolize and reproduce, similar to the oxygen-based life forms here on Earth. And more than that, the researchers say that these life forms could flourish in the harsh, cold environment of Saturn's moon, Titan.  Titan's surface is filled with seas of liquid methane that researchers believe could harbor these methane-based cells. 

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, highlights a cell membrane composed of small organic nitrogen compounds that can function in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero. 

"We employed a molecular dynamics method that screened for candidate compounds from methane for self-assembly into membrane-like structures. The most promising compound they found is an acrylonitrile azotosome, which showed good stability, a strong barrier to decomposition, and a flexibility similar to that of phospholipid membranes on Earth. Acrylonitrile - a colorless, poisonous, liquid organic compound used in the manufacture of acrylic fibers, resins and thermoplastics - is present in Titan's atmosphere," lead researcher of the study, Paulette Clancy says. "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'."

"We're not biologists, and we're not astronomers, but we had the right tools. 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 paper's co-author, Jonathan Lunine, is an expert on Saturn's moons and an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini-Huygens mission that discovered methane-ethane seas on Titan.

Excited by the initial proof of concept, researchers say the next step is to try and demonstrate how these cells would behave.  Lunine also looks forward to the long-term idea of actually testing these ideas on the moon itself saying, "someday sending a probe to float on the seas of this amazing moon and directly sampling the organics."

Could life of a different nature exist in our solar system?  If this new model proves accurate, the possibility exists.  James Stevenson, the first author of the study, believes it is definitely possibly stating, "Ours is the first concrete blueprint of life, not as we know it."

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