Saturn’s moon Titan may have prebiotic conditions necessary for life despite being filled with liquid methane and ethane instead of water, according to a study published on July 4 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study explains that the reaction between sunlight and the methane and nitrogen contained in Titan’s atmosphere could produce hydrogen cyanide, a probable prebiotic organic chemical ingredient.

“We are used to our own conditions here on Earth. Our scientific experience is at room temperature and ambient conditions. Titan is a completely different beast,” says lead author Martin Rahm, postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at Cornell University. “So if we think in biological terms, we’re probably going to be at a dead end.”

Although water is necessary to life, like here on Earth, the research team from Cornell University claims that life could also emerge under different conditions. Hydrogen cyanide reacts with itself and other molecules that can form polyimine and other long chains or polymers.


An image of Titan’s surface. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Apparently, polyimine could be a possible catalyst of life because it can still accomplish remarkable feat under very cold environments and absorb the sun’s energy. In other words, the chemical they found on Titan can work under its harsh environment.

Still, the research team admits that they need to investigate this further to understand how chemistry changes over time. They say that their findings could lead the way for other explorations aiming to find evidence of lie outside Earth.

However, if other places in the universe also have the same prebiotic chemistry like Titan, Rahm points out that this could mean changing our current views about how life begins. We could see that there are different kinds of life that emerged in a condition different to the one on Earth.

A recent study regarding alien life also claims that carbon-based life forms could also form on carbon planets made of diamond, graphite and carbides. This implies that even planets with tiny amounts of carbon can still sustain life. This study is currently available online in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.