those known in contemporary terran life. These results suggest that if life originated independently, even within our own solar system, it might have nonterran characteristics and, thus, not be detectable by NASA’s in situ or remote-sensing missions designed explicitly to detect terran biomolecules or their products.

Further, if life is possible in solvents other than liquid water, it might exist in planetary environments other than the few that are currently targeted as potential hosts of nonterran life. Other than on Earth, liquid water is now considered possible only on subsurface Mars and in sub-ice environments of the Galilean moons of Jupiter (Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), and perhaps on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Nonaqueous solvents might, however, be present in other planetary environments. Because some of these spots (e.g., the surface of Titan) could be more accessible via spacecraft missions than either the deep subsurface of Mars or sub-ice Europa, evidence for life in solvents other than water might redirect missions to these other locales, and substantially improve the design of life-detection instrumentation generally. Similarly, nonterran life may change the gross characteristics of planetary environments in ways that differ from influences stemming from terran life, and these differences (e.g., the relative abundances of atmospheric species) may ultimately be observable over interstellar distances with astronomical facilities now on the drawing board.

This report explores a limited set of hypothetical alternative chemistries of life by following a hierarchy of possibilities that have been ranked through experimental, exploratory, and theoretical work done in the past. The study briefly reviews current knowledge concerning the following questions or hypotheses and provides suggestions for future research.

  1. What environments on Earth that are extremes by terran standards harbor life? How must life-detection strategies be altered to discover this life on Earth? What extreme environments have not received attention? Are there synthetic environments that better represent conditions on alien worlds?

  2. What environments on Earth are so extreme that life with standard terran biochemistry has been unable to occupy it?

  3. What life forms are possible, still based on carbon and still functioning in water, but with a fundamental difference in the method of reproduction? Issues to be explored include the following:

    • What types of polymeric structures, other than proteins built from the standard 20 amino acids, might support catalysis in water? For example, can 2-amino-2-methyl-carboxylic acids, which have been found to be enantiomerically enriched in meteorites, be the basis for a catalytic system? In the absence of biopolymers, would selected monomers provide catalysis sufficient to sustain life?

    • What types of polymeric structures, other than nucleic acids built from the standard four nucleotides, might be replicatable and might support Darwinian evolution in water?

    • Can a functioning genetic system be established that is not based on a linear molecular structure? For example, can a compositional genome (a collection of monomers) sustain heredity?

    • Can a system capable of Darwinian evolution be demonstrated in the laboratory using nonstandard biopolymers or a compositional genome in water?

  1. What life forms are possible, still based on carbon, but not functioning in water? Issues to be explored include these:

    • Can membranes be constructed in the laboratory that separate an organic solvent inside a cell from an organic solvent outside a cell?

    • What kinds of polymeric structures (or monomer collections) might support catalysis and genetics in nonaqueous environments, particularly in solvents found on solar system bodies other than Earth?

    • Can mineral systems be identified that interact in interesting ways with organic compounds in nonaqueous systems?

    • Can asymmetric induction, and spontaneous resolution that leads to the homochirality assumed to be necessary for life, be achieved in nonaqueous solvents, especially those found on solar system bodies other than Earth?

    • Can a system capable of Darwinian evolution be demonstrated in the laboratory using nonstandard monomers and/or biopolymers in nonaqueous environments?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement