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NASA researchers have confirmed the existence in Titan's atmosphere of vinyl cyanide, which is an organic compound that could potentially provide the cellular membranes for microbial life to form in Titan's vast methane oceans. If true, it could prove to us that life can flourish without the ubiquitous H2O.

Earth-based cell membranes are made of phospholipids: molecular chains with phosphorus-oxygen heads and carbon-chain tails that bind to each other to form a flexible membrane in water. Methane-based life, should it exist, would need an alternative to Earth's phospholipid-based existence and would open up a much wider range of planets and moons to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. one possible alternative is vinyl cyanide.

Phosphorus and oxygen, found in Earth cell membranes, don't exist in Titan's frigid methane oceans, so any cell-like membranes would have to be based on nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon, all of which are abundant on Titan. Molecular modeling studies of a variety of molecules containing these elements showed that vinyl cyanide was the molecule most likely to form a stable and flexible membrane that acts like Earth-based membranes under Titan's conditions.

Still, vinyl cyanide-based life, like any other, would face challenging circumstances on Titan. However, Palmer says that "if membranes can be made in a lab with a simulation of Titan's ocean conditions, it would make us more optimistic about them really forming on Titan."

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Category: Science