Sunday, July 30, 2017

NASA finds moon of Saturn has chemical that could form 'membranes'

[Space Daily] NASA scientists have definitively detected the chemical acrylonitrile in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, a place that has long intrigued scientists investigating the chemical precursors of life.
On Earth, acrylonitrile, also known as vinyl cyanide, is useful in the manufacture of plastics. Under the harsh conditions of Saturn's largest moon, this chemical is thought to be capable of forming stable, flexible structures similar to cell membranes. Other researchers have previously suggested that acrylonitrile is an ingredient of Titan's atmosphere, but they did not report an unambiguous detection of the chemical in the smorgasbord of organic, or carbon-rich, molecules found there.
Now, NASA researchers have identified the chemical fingerprint of acrylonitrile in Titan data collected by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. The team found large quantities of the chemical on Titan, most likely in the stratosphere - the hazy part of the atmosphere that gives this moon its brownish-orange color.
"We found convincing evidence that acrylonitrile is present in Titan's atmosphere, and we think a significant supply of this raw material reaches the surface," said Maureen Palmer, a researcher with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of a July 28, 2017, paper in Science Advances.
The cells of Earth's plants and animals would not hold up well on Titan, where surface temperatures average minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 179 degrees Celsius), and lakes brim with liquid methane.
In 2015, university scientists tackled the question of whether any organic molecules likely to be on Titan could, under such inhospitable conditions, form structures similar to the lipid bilayers of living cells on Earth. Thin and flexible, the lipid bilayer is the main component of the cell membrane, which separates the inside of a cell from the outside world. This team identified acrylonitrile as the best candidate.
Those researchers proposed that acrylonitrile molecules could come together as a sheet of material similar to a cell membrane. The sheet could form a hollow, microscopic sphere that they dubbed an "azotosome." This sphere could serve as a tiny storage and transport container, much like the spheres that lipid bilayers can form.
"The ability to form a stable membrane to separate the internal environment from the external one is important because it provides a means to contain chemicals long enough to allow them to interact," said Michael Mumma, director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology, which is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "If membrane-like structures could be formed by vinyl cyanide, it would be an important step on the pathway to life on Saturn's moon Titan." Read More