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Thread: Non-water-based life?

  1. #1 Non-water-based life? 
    Forum Professor Daecon's Avatar
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    I'm not sure if this should be in biology, or chemistry, or what...

    In science fiction, the idea of "non-carbon-based life" is quite common, usually some exotic alien would have silicon-based biology instead of carbon-based due to the idea that silicon and carbon can create similar molecular structures, leading to the rise of a silicon-based DNA-type system.

    I was wondering if it's theoretically possible to have a system of biology that uses something other than water? Either a currently-gaseous molecule that's liquid at extremely low temperatures, or a currently-solid molecule that would be liquid at very high temperatures, and so have the same function that water does for life to exist as we know it.

    I guess it's more of a chemistry question as I'm asking if there's anything that has the same properties as water, but uses a vastly different temperature scale because water would either be solid or gas, and so not be suitable for life functions.

    I thought I'd heard that there was the idea that ammonia could be a suitable water substitute on worlds of very low temperatures, and so the concept of "ammonia-based" life was fictionally plausible.


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  3. #2  
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    This is an area that is rather open to speculation because there is not much data about high/low pressure/temp "organic" chemistry. I have read Sci-Fic about creatures who lived in a gaseous sulfer atmosphere and who had established a colony on mercury as a base to use in trading with the primatives on the third planet. The substance they were trading for was a botanical narcotic that the natives sold to them as shredded dried leaves wrapped in paper cylinders and packed 20 to a pack. The traders had to handle them very carfully and keep them in frozen block of "air".

    It was a good read but I have no idea if the chemistry was actually possible.


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  4. #3  
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    I am bringing you a wikipage.
    Hypothetical types of biochemistry - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Oddly enough a few fairly serious people have considered the same question.

    As for myself I would bet that we would not recognize something very different from us as living, would regard it as an interesting mineral or deposit, and would use it in some trivial industrial process.
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  5. #4  
    WYSIWYG Moderator marnixR's Avatar
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    if life exists on Titan then it will be hydrocarbon-based since water is not liquid under the circumstances
    not sure how good the stuff is as a universal solvent though
    "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (Philip K. Dick)
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  6. #5  
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    This is a topic people often speculate about. Personally, I find it unlikely, since water is such an exceptional 'universal solvent', and nothing else comes close.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    This is a topic people often speculate about. Personally, I find it unlikely, since water is such an exceptional 'universal solvent', and nothing else comes close.
    Vacuum is the best solvent, however i doubt vacuum is the basis for life, so i guess you are correct it is unlikely we ever find any non water based lifeforms, even if we travel to a billion inhabited worlds.
    Growing up, i marveled at star-trek's science, and ignored the perfect society. Now, i try to ignore their science, and marvel at the society.

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  8. #7  
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    Non-water-based life exists. That's all I'm sure of. The universe is a big place and there are so many possible organizations that there is probably life based on millions of molecules, in my opinion. I don't know if it is very common though.
    "It is the ability to make predictions about the future that is the crux of intelligence."
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  9. #8  
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    That's a very confident assertion on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
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    Quote Originally Posted by NNet View Post
    Non-water-based life exists. That's all I'm sure of. The universe is a big place and there are so many possible organizations that there is probably life based on millions of molecules, in my opinion. I don't know if it is very common though.
    It's an endearing thought, but until we can conclusively prove the existence of such phenomena, all we can really conclude is that's it's either a theoretical possibility or a likely probability.

    Perhaps each type of biochemistry requires a planet in it's own "habitable zone" for life to be able to evolve (no guarantee it ever actually will) such as Water-based at 1AU from the star.

    We've not even detected the existence of other Water-based life in other star systems yet, all we've determined is that chance to be "likely probable" - but not confirmed.
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  11. #10  
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    Ammonia based life in it self seems unlikely. (what you claimed as plausible). As ammonia may be an adequate solvent, but not good enough. At those low temperatures the ammonia would be almost pure. And i can't see how biochemistry could form any type of membrane structure in supercooled liquid ammonia. Then maybe a crystalline life form. But this may not even need a solvent, just electric fields, and residual electrons to kick and accept atoms into it's structure.
    Growing up, i marveled at star-trek's science, and ignored the perfect society. Now, i try to ignore their science, and marvel at the society.

    Imagine, being able to create matter out of thin air, and not coming up with using drones for boarding hostile ships. Or using drones to defend your own ship. Heck, using drones to block energy attacks, counterattack or for surveillance. Unless, of course, they are nano-machines in your blood, which is a billion times more complex..
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  12. #11  
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    If the singularity occures, is that not an example of non water based life? Am I not typing data into an organelle of a non water based life form?
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  13. #12  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zwolver View Post
    Ammonia based life in it self seems unlikely. (what you claimed as plausible). As ammonia may be an adequate solvent, but not good enough. At those low temperatures the ammonia would be almost pure. And i can't see how biochemistry could form any type of membrane structure in supercooled liquid ammonia. Then maybe a crystalline life form. But this may not even need a solvent, just electric fields, and residual electrons to kick and accept atoms into it's structure.
    I'm not sure why a membrane (bilipid layer) would be impossible with liquid ammonia. After all, the temperature range which ammonia remains liquid is a function of pressure, and I don't see why there should not be temperature regimes at which liquids immiscible with NH3 could coexist with liquid NH3 itself. Is there some reason why not?
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  14. #13  
    Forum Professor Zwolver's Avatar
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    Hmm.. i assumed ammonia would be apolar, but i withdraw my statement, it's polar, less than water but it may be possible to push in a bilipid layer.. So.. i stand corrected..
    Growing up, i marveled at star-trek's science, and ignored the perfect society. Now, i try to ignore their science, and marvel at the society.

    Imagine, being able to create matter out of thin air, and not coming up with using drones for boarding hostile ships. Or using drones to defend your own ship. Heck, using drones to block energy attacks, counterattack or for surveillance. Unless, of course, they are nano-machines in your blood, which is a billion times more complex..
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  15. #14  
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    To tell the truth I am not even sure what qualifies as life. For things like viruses and prions the normal definitions break down.
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  16. #15  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zwolver View Post
    Hmm.. i assumed ammonia would be apolar, but i withdraw my statement, it's polar, less than water but it may be possible to push in a bilipid layer.. So.. i stand corrected..
    One interesting thing I vaguely recollect about liquid ammonia is the formation of blue or even copper-coloured solutions with alkali metals, in which the anion is the solvated electron. I gather you can even isolate crystalline solids called "electrides", consisting of a cation such as Na(NH3)6+ and the anion is simply "e-" ! Amazing. Of course, these are all strongly reducing species, so would only be stable if there is no oxygen or other electronegative atoms around. Might be fun to postulate a life chemistry in which the electron takes the place of oxygen…...
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  17. #16  
    Forum Professor Zwolver's Avatar
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    Well, any substance capable of easily accepting electrons would do. However ammonia wouldn't be able to do this. Maybe using Fluoride as an oxidator, or chlorine instead of oxygen. However... The more we speak of these compounds with farfetched possibilities, the lower the chances of it actually being possible..
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    Growing up, i marveled at star-trek's science, and ignored the perfect society. Now, i try to ignore their science, and marvel at the society.

    Imagine, being able to create matter out of thin air, and not coming up with using drones for boarding hostile ships. Or using drones to defend your own ship. Heck, using drones to block energy attacks, counterattack or for surveillance. Unless, of course, they are nano-machines in your blood, which is a billion times more complex..
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  18. #17  
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    Quote Originally Posted by PhDemon View Post
    That's a very confident assertion on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
    Quote Originally Posted by Daecon View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by NNet View Post
    Non-water-based life exists. That's all I'm sure of. The universe is a big place and there are so many possible organizations that there is probably life based on millions of molecules, in my opinion. I don't know if it is very common though.
    It's an endearing thought, but until we can conclusively prove the existence of such phenomena, all we can really conclude is that's it's either a theoretical possibility or a likely probability.

    Perhaps each type of biochemistry requires a planet in it's own "habitable zone" for life to be able to evolve (no guarantee it ever actually will) such as Water-based at 1AU from the star.

    We've not even detected the existence of other Water-based life in other star systems yet, all we've determined is that chance to be "likely probable" - but not confirmed.
    I'm not 100% certain, but in my opinion it is very very likely. How many molecules are there on planets which could develop (not necessarily support) earth-like life? How many molecules are there in a gram of dirt? We don't know how often molecules capable of evolution form though.

    Reasons I'm extremely confident that non-water based life exists: number of molecules per planet, size of the universe, time the universe has been around, and number of times molecules have interacted during the life of the universe.

    Why would water be so special and required? I suppose I'm not really answering Daecon's question though.
    "It is the ability to make predictions about the future that is the crux of intelligence."
    -Jeff Hawkins.
    For example, you can predict that 3+5=8. You can predict what sequence of muscle commands you should generate during a conversation, or whether an object is a desk or a chair. The brain is very complicated, but that is essentially how intelligence works. Instinct, emotions, and behavior are somewhat seperate.
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  19. #18  
    Bullshit Intolerant PhDemon's Avatar
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    From a chemists POV water is special as it is liquid over a relatively large range of temperatures and is such a good solvent. I can think of no other solvent that can dissolve such a wide range of inorganic and organic substances most of which are necessary for metabolism and life. No matter how long you leave something or how much of it is there, if it isn't soluble how will it be metabolised?
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    "non water based life" (title)
    "non carbon based life"(post)

    Yeah, because water totally has carbon in it
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  21. #20  
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    Quote Originally Posted by PhDemon View Post
    From a chemists POV water is special as it is liquid over a relatively large range of temperatures and is such a good solvent. I can think of no other solvent that can dissolve such a wide range of inorganic and organic substances most of which are necessary for metabolism and life. No matter how long you leave something or how much of it is there, if it isn't soluble how will it be metabolised?
    Oh, that makes sense.
    "It is the ability to make predictions about the future that is the crux of intelligence."
    -Jeff Hawkins.
    For example, you can predict that 3+5=8. You can predict what sequence of muscle commands you should generate during a conversation, or whether an object is a desk or a chair. The brain is very complicated, but that is essentially how intelligence works. Instinct, emotions, and behavior are somewhat seperate.
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  22. #21  
    Forum Cosmic Wizard icewendigo's Avatar
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    Somewhere in another galaxy there are aliens on a titan-esque hydrocarbon sea and rain precipitation planet arguing over how impossible it is for life to appear on water planets:
    "Sure in scorching hot temperatures water is not solid but melts into liquid, but there isnt even carbon in water, how can life emerge from just hydrogen and oxygen? Your missing the right mix, you dont have organic molecules in water, etc. You only see exotic 'Water' based life in sci-fi B movies"
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  23. #22  
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    Quote Originally Posted by icewendigo View Post
    Somewhere in another galaxy there are aliens on a titan-esque hydrocarbon sea and rain precipitation planet arguing over how impossible it is for life to appear on water planets:
    "Sure in scorching hot temperatures water is not solid but melts into liquid, but there isnt even carbon in water, how can life emerge from just hydrogen and oxygen? Your missing the right mix, you dont have organic molecules in water, etc. You only see exotic 'Water' based life in sci-fi B movies"
    Say what? There is no carbon in water? Are you sure about that, because i call bullshit right here.

    Sorry, got carried away. But Co2 can dissolve in water, and methane will dissolve in water, also methanol, ethanol, and simple esters, some cyanide, etc.. there is plenty carbon in most waters.

    if your point was saying that pure water doesn't contain carbon, then yes. But pure water on a planet is impossible, there will be all kinds of junk floating in it (junk i mean, anything that can dissolve in water).
    Growing up, i marveled at star-trek's science, and ignored the perfect society. Now, i try to ignore their science, and marvel at the society.

    Imagine, being able to create matter out of thin air, and not coming up with using drones for boarding hostile ships. Or using drones to defend your own ship. Heck, using drones to block energy attacks, counterattack or for surveillance. Unless, of course, they are nano-machines in your blood, which is a billion times more complex..
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  24. #23  
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    The thing about water being a "universal" solvent, how many of those soluble chemicals are actually necessary for life?

    Surely as long an another type of solvent is able to dissolve at least life-essential chemicals, isn't that really all that matters? Anything else that's dissolved is just a superfluous superfluid?
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  25. #24  
    Forum Cosmic Wizard icewendigo's Avatar
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    " i call bullshit right here."
    You'll have to tell that to the alien on planet Xornos who are making these claims based on their own non-water-based perspective and projecting their perspective onto potential water-based life, and tell them that indeed although in theory Water is like this and like that, in a given environment it can be different.
    (but no need to tell them since it was a joke).
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