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Earth's Extreme Life-Forms Shed Light on Alien Potential

Aug 26, 2015 01:00 PM EDT
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Earth's most extreme life forms could predict what life is like elsewhere in the universe, according to Washington State University planetary scientist, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, who recently published his findings of "The Physical, Chemical and Physiological Limits of Life" in Life.

Alien life forms have always been a question many turn to scientists to answer. However, NASA's recent discovery of 500 new planets near the constellations Lyra and Cygnus in the Milky Way Galaxy might have just added one more piece to this indefinite puzzle.

"If you don't explore the various options of what life may be like in the universe, you won't know what to look for when you go out to find it," Schulze-Makuch said in a statement.

In his research, Schulze-Makuch discusses what is known about Earth's most extreme life forms and what is known about the environments of Mars and Titan, Saturn's moon, in order to explain the possibilities of what life could be like on other planets. One example noted in his research is the bombardier beetle, which on Earth is a species that excretes an explosive mix of hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals to protect itself from predators. However, "On other planets, under gravity conditions similar to those present on Mars, a bombardier beetle-like alien could excrete a similar reaction to propel itself as much as 300 meters into the air," Schulze-Makuch explained in a release.

If life were to exist on Mars, Earth life would have a lot of adapting to do, according to Schulze-Makuch's study: "First, organisms would need a way to get water in an environment that is akin to a drier and much colder version of Chile's Atacama Desert," Schulze-Makuch explained in the release. "A possible adaptation would be to use a water-hydrogen peroxide mixture rather than water as an intracellular liquid."

However, life on Titan would have to adjust to a drastically colder temperature, since it is a greater distance from the sun than Earth is. If life were to exist on Titan, it would also have to use something other than water as an intracellular liquid, since there is no liquid water on the planet's surface, nor any carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since these are two essential chemical compounds of life as we know it, Schulze-Makuch explains that one possible solution to this problem, is a liquid hydrocarbon like methane or ethane, since non-water-based life forms could feasibly live in the liquid-methane and ethane lakes and seas, which conveniently make up a large portion of Titan's surface -- similar to how organisms live in Earth's bodies of water, the release noted.

"On Earth, we have only scratched the surface of the physiological options various organisms have. But what we do know is astounding," Schulze-Makuch said in the release. "The possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe are even more staggering."

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