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Methane-Based Life Forms

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Congratulations to a team of chemists/exobiologists at Cornell University led by Professor Paulette Clancy and grad student James Stevenson for their working out of a possible mechanism for methane-based life forms on Titan. Called “azotosomes,” these cellular units could eschew oxygen and create an entirely different metabolism--one adapted to very cold temperatures and the liquid methane seas of Saturn’s largest moon. Their work is fascinating. They give a lovely tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov for an essay he wrote in 1962 on possible alien biochemistries found not in water, but in other fluids--but their conclusion that they are the very first scientists to extensively work out a chemistry of alien life (Stevenson is quoted as saying, “Ours is the first concrete blueprint of life not as we know it”) may not be entirely accurate.

Back in the 1960s, there was considerable talk about silicon-based biochemistry, some of which spread over to science fiction and may have helped create the sand worms of DUNE and the strange, burrowing creature called the “Horta” in STAR TREK, which, after it was wounded, Bones patched up with a mix of silicon-based cement. I do not recall the scientists who worked on these silicon-based theories, but there was some talk that, while silicon could fit into a variety of ingenious molecules and replicate many carbon-based biochemical processes, the one process they could not replicate would be the mechanism for clotting blood. Did that influence Gene L Coon as he wrote the STAR TREK episode, DEVIL IN THE DARK?

As well, A.G. Cairns-Smith has written extensively about the possible origins of life in silicon-rich clays.

Still, the work done by Clancy and Stevenson and their team is excellent and well worth tracking!

Here’s a reasonably good discussion of alternate biochemistries, including silicon.

I’m currently putting the final touches to KILLING TITAN, a sequel to WAR DOGS, which deals extensively with Titan--though not quite to the rich level of detail provided by Clancy and Stevenson.

[Read More in The Telegraph]

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