Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

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ZedSed
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Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 08 Jun 2014 10:00

The purpose of this thread is for asking questions about what is or isn't feasible as a life-form or biome in a hard sci-fi setting. This is the place to go if you have questions like, "Can I make my aliens live on a cryogenically cold world and breathe helium?", or "Can my conpeople live in a super hot place, and go skinny-dipping in molten lava for fun?"

Also, questions/theories about alternative evolutionary paths might be interesting to post here.

I don't have a Phd in organic chemistry or astrobiology, but I am a "serious" amateur, so I think I can answer at least half of the serious questions that should come up. And collectively, I guess with everyones knowledge combined, reasonable answers shouldn't be too difficult to find in most cases.

So, ask away....
Edit: Also, this might be a good place to discuss any random hypothetical ideas you may have thought of
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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greatbuddha
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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by greatbuddha » 10 Jun 2014 00:00

How would a biochemistry using fluorine as the dominant electron acceptor work? (say, the reactions occurring in photosynthesis and respiration wouldn't be C6H12O6+6O2><6CO2+6H2O but more like CH4+4F2><CF4+4HF.
Important questions
-What temperature would these fluorine lifeforms have to live at to prevent spontaneous combustion in their intensely oxidizing atmosphere?
-How would HF compare to H2O as a solvent?
-Which organic compounds are stable at low temperatures in a fluorine atmosphere and which aren't? (Could lipids, ethers, alchohols stick around or no?)
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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Squall » 10 Jun 2014 02:42

Helium is not a good option to breathe, because it does not react easily. Hydrogen is a better option.

The life forms will have to have a good thermal-insulator skin, otherwise the hot conditions will warm up the skin and the skin will warm up the inner organism.
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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 10 Jun 2014 05:49

Squall wrote:Helium is not a good option to breathe, because it does not react easily. Hydrogen is a better option.

The life forms will have to have a good thermal-insulator skin, otherwise the hot conditions will warm up the skin and the skin will warm up the inner organism.
Actually, I was waiting for someone to mention that. [:P] I gave that example with the plan to give your same advice. Helium, and the other noble gases (Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon and Radon) are too inert to be a productive part of a biochemistry system. However, I did once read a hard sci-fi novel that talked about Helium-3 being used as blood for a super cold organism. The isotope Helium-3 has some amazing properties, but not "chemical" properties.
greatbuddha wrote:How would a biochemistry using fluorine as the dominant electron acceptor work? (say, the reactions occurring in photosynthesis and respiration wouldn't be C6H12O6+6O2><6CO2+6H2O but more like CH4+4F2><CF4+4HF.
Important questions
-What temperature would these fluorine lifeforms have to live at to prevent spontaneous combustion in their intensely oxidizing atmosphere?
-How would HF compare to H2O as a solvent?
-Which organic compounds are stable at low temperatures in a fluorine atmosphere and which aren't? (Could lipids, ethers, alchohols stick around or no?)
Now that's an interesting question! I never did much research on Fluorine, but will get into it right away....
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 10 Jun 2014 06:33

I found one thing, so far. If you want to use hydrogen fluoride as a solvent for life, you would have to be talking about a mostly waterless world. HF reacts with water to become hydrofluoric acid. From what I gather, Fluorine is also quite rare, so it would be hard to justify talking about a planet with large enough quantities to form a biome naturally. But maybe you could hypothesize a weird reason for it. A constructed planet? An experiment?

Hydrogen fluoride melts at -83°C and boils at 19°C under 1 atm of pressure, btw.
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Ahzoh » 10 Jun 2014 06:58

could mercury be used for anything life-related?
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ZedSed
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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 10 Jun 2014 07:14

I'm not sure about mercury. Maybe it could replace iron as the oxygen carrying component of blood? I'll have to do more research to find out.

As a side note, talking about the iron in our blood, did you know that iron is the reason our bodies find carbon monoxide poisonous? If we used copper instead, replacing haemoglobin with haemocyanin, the oxygen transport mechanism of our blood would be immune to the effects of CO.
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 12 Jun 2014 17:07

greatbuddha wrote:How would a biochemistry using fluorine as the dominant electron acceptor work? (say, the reactions occurring in photosynthesis and respiration wouldn't be C6H12O6+6O2><6CO2+6H2O but more like CH4+4F2><CF4+4HF.
Important questions
-What temperature would these fluorine lifeforms have to live at to prevent spontaneous combustion in their intensely oxidizing atmosphere?
-How would HF compare to H2O as a solvent?
-Which organic compounds are stable at low temperatures in a fluorine atmosphere and which aren't? (Could lipids, ethers, alchohols stick around or no?)
I wasn't able to find answers to all of your questions, but I did discover one thing that might be interesting about a biochemistry based on fluorine. It's not quite what you were implying, but it's interesting! Some people have discussed the possibility of using fluorocarbons as a "structural" backbone for complex chemistry, using molten sulfur as a solvent like we use water. Such life would exist somewhere between 113°C and 445°C at one Earth atmosphere of pressure. Very hot life! I'm not sure of what the energy cycle chemistry would be though (like what is their version of oxygen, CO², sugar, etc...)

If you really want to use hydrogen fluoride as your solvent, I did learn one thing for you. The most likely chemical family for providing structural molecules are the paraffin waxes. And the liquid temperature range would be between -83°C and 19.5°C. Cold life! I don't know if it's cold enough to avoid spontaneous combustion though. From what I have gleaned, hydrogen fluoride is pretty corrosive to almost everything else. Hope that's helpful!
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Salmoneus » 12 Jun 2014 17:36

One small note on fluorine in life: perfluorocarbons. Perfluorocarbons are interesting for humans because a) they can carry oxygen and thus can replace blood*, and b) they're breathable liquids, which theoretically can give big advantages if you're dealing with pressure changes or accelerations.

*They're actually much better than blood, which led to a temporary fad in the 1990s of people replacing their blood with perfluorocarbons in order to perform better in athletic events. This didn't catch on because i) it's really, REALLY easy to test for, and ii) it does carry the risk of sudden death.

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 12 Jun 2014 17:44

Salmoneus wrote:One small note on fluorine in life: perfluorocarbons. Perfluorocarbons are interesting for humans because a) they can carry oxygen and thus can replace blood*, and b) they're breathable liquids, which theoretically can give big advantages if you're dealing with pressure changes or accelerations.

*They're actually much better than blood, which led to a temporary fad in the 1990s of people replacing their blood with perfluorocarbons in order to perform better in athletic events. This didn't catch on because i) it's really, REALLY easy to test for, and ii) it does carry the risk of sudden death.
Very interesting! Is that the stuff they used in the movie "The Abyss"? I remember that movie had some kind of liquid you could breathe.
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Ahzoh » 12 Jun 2014 17:51

Salmoneus wrote:One small note on fluorine in life: perfluorocarbons. Perfluorocarbons are interesting for humans because a) they can carry oxygen and thus can replace blood*, and b) they're breathable liquids, which theoretically can give big advantages if you're dealing with pressure changes or accelerations.

*They're actually much better than blood, which led to a temporary fad in the 1990s of people replacing their blood with perfluorocarbons in order to perform better in athletic events. This didn't catch on because i) it's really, REALLY easy to test for, and ii) it does carry the risk of sudden death.

What causes the sudden death? The body's rejection of it?
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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Salmoneus » 12 Jun 2014 18:11

Not sure. And actually, I don't know anyone who actually died of it - but famously, Mauro Gianetti spent two weeks in intensive care with multiple organ failure as a result of it. Any time you fiddle with the blood, you can get problems. Maybe it didn't work, and he didn't have enough oxygen; or too well, and had too much oxygen; or maybe the blood just got thicker (EPO causes a lot of sudden heart attacks, for instance).

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Lambuzhao » 12 Jun 2014 23:11

Salmoneus wrote:One small note on fluorine in life: perfluorocarbons. Perfluorocarbons are interesting for humans because a) they can carry oxygen and thus can replace blood*, and b) they're breathable liquids, which theoretically can give big advantages if you're dealing with pressure changes or accelerations.

*They're actually much better than blood, which led to a temporary fad in the 1990s of people replacing their blood with perfluorocarbons in order to perform better in athletic events. This didn't catch on because i) it's really, REALLY easy to test for, and ii) it does carry the risk of sudden death.
I remember videos of mice breathing under "water". Hm, it's all fun until you got to make a number 2 (or die suddenly).

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Lambuzhao » 13 Jun 2014 02:38

Has anyone ever thought of more complex prokaryotic multicellular organisms. Could something like a jellyfish, sponge or hydra be composed of prokaryotic cells?

Could Archaea theoretically create colonial/multicellular organisms?

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Lambuzhao » 13 Jun 2014 02:49

Wow - just discovered multicellular magnetotactic prokaryotes. WOW!
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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 13 Jun 2014 04:51

I can't see why prokaryotes couldn't evolve into multi-cellular life, as long as they could find a way to produce collagen or something functionally similar. Eukarya started branching off into multi-cellular organisms as soon as there was enough free oxygen in the air to justify producing collagen. I think the thing that limits them right now is that they don't have mitochondria, so they don't have a strong ability to handle oxygen in their metabolism. But there might be a theoretical hack to get around that. Replace collagen with keratin or chitin maybe, (do keratin and/or chitin need large quantities of oxygen too?), or some kind of lipid? I dunno. My understanding of the nuts and bolts chemistry only goes so far.
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 13 Jun 2014 05:12

One thing that would be interesting would be a lifeform that used some kind of energy cycle chemistry that is all liquid all the time. The *aliens* would have no need to evolve lungs or any kind of respiration system. Only a stomach.

For instance, we use H²O and CO² to produce ATP (sugar) and oxygen. But what if all of the functional equivalents for these were naturally liquids in the aliens environment? The alien would only need some kind of catalysis (enzyme) to convert their version of *sugars* back into the liquid form, and the liquids would always be available, floating around in their solvent. No need for lungs!

Can anyone think of a system where this would be possible? I would guess it might be possible in a high pressure environment, because the range of substances remaining liquid is higher at high pressure, so the chances of multiple liquids existing simultaneously would be higher.
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Xonen » 13 Jun 2014 10:09

Lambuzhao wrote:Has anyone ever thought of more complex prokaryotic multicellular organisms.
I have, or rather, I've considered a world where there wouldn't be the kind of difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes that we have. However, as is typical for yours truly, I've never gotten around to actually fleshing out that idea.

ZedSed wrote:I think the thing that limits them right now is that they don't have mitochondria, so they don't have a strong ability to handle oxygen in their metabolism.
No, some prokaryotes are quite capable of handling oxygen - indeed, the generally accepted theory is that mitochondria actually evolved from such prokaryotes! In fact, aerobic prokaryotes might be even better at using oxygen than we are, producing up to 38 molecules of ATP per one molecule of glucose, while eukaryotes are generally limited to about 36. (In theory, at least; the reality appears to be much more complicated and under ongoing research.)

My hypothesis would be that the lack of multicellular prokaryotes might have more to do with their genetic and structural simplicity; they probably have neither the capacity nor any particular need to develop the kind of differentiation found in eukaryotic cells. Furthermore, multicellular organisms only use a part of their cells for reproduction, which puts them at an evolutionary disadvantage unless there's some significant benefit outweighing the loss in reproductive efficiency. Which, again, I suppose might be more likely for more complex organisms.

I'm mostly just guessing here, though. In any case, prokaryotes have been around for a lot longer than eukaryotes, so whatever the reason why they never developed (complex) multicellularism may be, it's probably a good one.

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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by Thrice Xandvii » 13 Jun 2014 10:20

Xonen wrote:My hypothesis would be that the lack of multicellular prokaryotes might have more to do with their genetic and structural simplicity; they probably have neither the capacity nor any particular need to develop the kind of differentiation found in eukaryotic cells.
I suspect the length and complexity of their genetic material would be related directly to the degree of "safety" of said material.

Prokaryotes simply don't have as much protection to prevent their genes from getting damaged during the course of other cellular activities.
Edit: Through lack of nucleus that is.
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Re: Alternative Biochemistry / Astrobiology

Post by ZedSed » 13 Jun 2014 10:30

Xonen wrote:
Lambuzhao wrote:Has anyone ever thought of more complex prokaryotic multicellular organisms.
I have, or rather, I've considered a world where there wouldn't be the kind of difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes that we have. However, as is typical for yours truly, I've never gotten around to actually fleshing out that idea.

ZedSed wrote:I think the thing that limits them right now is that they don't have mitochondria, so they don't have a strong ability to handle oxygen in their metabolism.
No, some prokaryotes are quite capable of handling oxygen - indeed, the generally accepted theory is that mitochondria actually evolved from such prokaryotes! In fact, aerobic prokaryotes might be even better at using oxygen than we are, producing up to 38 molecules of ATP per one molecule of glucose, while eukaryotes are generally limited to about 36. (In theory, at least; the reality appears to be much more complicated and under ongoing research.)

My hypothesis would be that the lack of multicellular prokaryotes might have more to do with their genetic and structural simplicity; they probably have neither the capacity nor any particular need to develop the kind of differentiation found in eukaryotic cells. Furthermore, multicellular organisms only use a part of their cells for reproduction, which puts them at an evolutionary disadvantage unless there's some significant benefit outweighing the loss in reproductive efficiency. Which, again, I suppose might be more likely for more complex organisms.

I'm mostly just guessing here, though. In any case, prokaryotes have been around for a lot longer than eukaryotes, so whatever the reason why they never developed (complex) multicellularism may be, it's probably a good one.
That may infact be the reason right there. It seems that the driving force (or at least one of the driving forces) for evolution is inadequacy. Prokaryotes are naturally "tougher" in many ways than eukarya were at the time. Bacteria have their tough cell walls, and archaea can metabolize damn near anything in almost any hostile environment. They don't really need to evolve if they are so hardy. I think simplicity can be advantageous
bp dt ʣʦ ʤʧ ɖʈ ʥʨ ɟc gk ɢq ʡ ʔ
m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ
βɸ vf ðθ zs ʒʃ ʐʂ ʑɕ ʝç ɣx ʁχ ʕħ ʢʜ ɦh
ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ ʙ r ʀ ѵ ɾ ɽ ɮɬ l ɭ ʎ ʟ ɺ
ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ ʍ ɥ ɧ
i y ɨ ʉ ɯ u ɪ ʏ ʊ e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o ə ɛ œ ɜ ɞ ʌ ɔ æ ɐ a ɶ ɑ ɒ

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