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Life's building blocks are surprisingly stable in Venus-like conditions: Study

Accepted submission by taylorvich at 2024-03-21 14:00:59
Science

https://phys.org/news/2024-03-life-blocks-stable-venus-conditions.html [phys.org]

If there is life in the solar system beyond Earth, it might be found in the clouds of Venus. In contrast to the planet's blisteringly inhospitable surface, Venus' cloud layer, which extends from 30 to 40 miles above the surface, hosts milder temperatures that could support some extreme forms of life.

If it's out there, scientists have assumed that any Venusian cloud inhabitant would look very different from life forms on Earth. That's because the clouds themselves are made from highly toxic droplets of sulfuric acid—an intensely corrosive chemical that is known to dissolve metals and destroy most biological molecules on Earth.

But a new study by MIT researchers may challenge that assumption. Published today in the journal Astrobiology, the study reports that, in fact, some key building blocks of life can persist in solutions of concentrated sulfuric acid.

The study's authors have found that 19 amino acids that are essential to life on Earth are stable for up to four weeks when placed in vials of sulfuric acid at concentrations similar to those in Venus' clouds. In particular, they found that the molecular "backbone" of all 19 amino acids remained intact in sulfuric acid solutions ranging in concentration from 81% to 98%.

"What is absolutely surprising is that concentrated sulfuric acid is not a solvent that is universally hostile to organic chemistry," says study co-author Janusz Petkowski, a research affiliate in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).
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The search for life in Venus' clouds has gained momentum in recent years, spurred in part by a controversial detection of phosphine—a molecule that is considered to be one signature of life—in the planet's atmosphere. While that detection remains under debate, the news has reinvigorated an old question: Could Earth's sister planet actually host life?

In search of an answer, scientists are planning several missions to Venus, including the first largely privately funded mission to the planet, backed by California-based launch company Rocket Lab. That mission, on which Seager is the science principal investigator, aims to send a spacecraft through the planet's clouds to analyze their chemistry for signs of organic molecules.


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