All life as we know it has one basic need: water. The amount of water required to sustain life is a highly variable thing, from creatures that live out their whole lives in our oceans to others who can survive for months at a time without a single drop of water. However it would be short sighted of us to think that water was the be all and end all of all life in our universe as such broad assumptions have rarely panned out to be true under sustained scrutiny. That does leave us with the rather puzzling question of what environments and factors are required to give rise to life, something we don’t have a good answer to since we haven’t yet created life ourselves. We can study how some of the known biological processes function in other environments and whether that might be a viable place for life to arise.
Researchers at the Washington State University have been investigating the possibility of fluids that could potentially take the place of water in life on other planets. Water has a lot of properties that make it conducive to producing life (as we know it) like dissolving minerals, forming bonds and so on. The theory goes that should a liquid have similar properties to that of water then, potentially, an environment rich in said substance could give rise to life that uses that liquid as its base rather than water. Of course finding something with those exact properties is a tricky endeavour but these researchers may have stumbled onto an unlikely candidate.
Most people are familiar with the triple point of substances, the point where a slight change in pressure or temperature can change it from any of its one three states (solid, liquid, gas) instantly. Above there however there’s another transition called the supercritical point where the properties of the gaseous and liquid phases of the substance converge producing a supercritical fluid. For carbon dioxide this results in a substance that behaves like a gas with the density of its liquid form, a rather peculiar state of matter. It’s this form of carbon dioxide that the researchers believe could replace water as the fluid of life elsewhere, potentially life that’s even more efficient than what we find here.
Specifically they looked at how enzymes behaved in supercritical CO2 and found that they were far more stable than the same ones that they had residing in water. Additionally the enzymes became far more selective about the molecules that they bound to, making the overall process far more efficient than it otherwise would have been. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this was that they found organisms were highly tolerant of this kind of fluid as several bacteria and their enzymes were found to be present in the fluid. Whilst this isn’t definitive proof for life being able to use supercritical CO2 as a replacement for water it does lend credence to the idea that life could arise in places where water is absent.
Of course whether that life would look like anything we’d recognise is something that we won’t really know for a long time to come. An atmosphere of supercritical C02 would likely be an extremely hostile place to our kind of life, more akin to Venus than our comfortable Earth, making exploration quite difficult. Still this idea greatly expands our concept of what life might be and what might give rise to it, something which has had an incredibly inward view for far too long. I have little doubt that one day we’ll find life not as we know it, I’m just not sure if we’ll know it when we see it.