Implications of Alternative Biochemistry

Implications of Alternative Biochemistry

But the question remains, what might the nature of such a creature be if it evolves in an extreme environment with alternative biochemical composition and metabolism? It may be a particularly fruitful question when we consider not only the properties of the elements and compounds of which they are likely to be composed but also the breadth of environmental conditions which are requisite for or facilitative of life with such a constitution.

Imagining Siliceous Life

Silicon-based life is perhaps most likely to resemble carbon-based life, simply due to the elements’ common atomic properties and analogous molecular compounds. Given the fact that silicon has greater atomic mass and complexity than carbon and that, by extension, silicon compounds are typically more massive than carbon molecules, we may extrapolate this property to suggest that silicon-based life may have more massive cells. This would require a more advanced cytoskeletal structure. However, this mass would not necessarily translate in the appearance of the multicellular form, as the additional mass and size of molecular structures is so subtle as to be unnoticeable at this scale. Nevertheless, they would be hardy beings.

If the creature operates on the silicon-oxygen paradigm, it may be adapted to an acidic, sulfuric environment; if this is the case, we would expect its internal pH to trend toward the acidic side of the spectrum, else it would expend too much energy regulating its pH in contrast with its environment. The effect may seem quite dramatic, producing creatures with acidic blood similar to H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs.

The corrosive properties of Xenomorphs’ acidic blood

If the creature makes extensive use of polysilanols, we know that it is likely adapted to extreme cold, and therefore we would expect its internal body temperature to run dramatically low, similar to pH. We would find them incredibly cold to the touch; they may experience discomfort simply by being in our near vicinity, as our own metabolic processes produce waste heat which emanates from our bodies. We would anticipate a significantly slower metabolic rate relative to our own. The organisms may seem to us to be slow-moving, deliberate, and lethargic, similar perhaps to reptiles which must also move deliberately to manage their metabolism.

Imagining Metallic Life

Metal oxide-based life redoubles the problem of molecular and cellular mass—however, its constitution may be the very answer to the problem. If oxidized tungsten can form a workable cell membrane, this may lend additional rigidity and stability to the cell structure. It is likely that this metallic rigidity would be evident in their multicellular forms, with skin which appears to lie in sleek plates, or perhaps as a carapace with the texture of rust, depending on the particular metal of which they are composed.

Because metal oxide-based life is especially resilient in extreme heat, we may expect their internal body temperature to be comparably high, minimizing metabolic demand. If a human medic came in contact with their blood, he might well be singed. With high body temperature comes the expectation of rapid metabolism, but this will not necessarily result in an observably accelerated pace. Because their cells are fundamentally composed of metal, their musculoskeletal structure would likely be bulky and slow to oxidize. Assuming their process of cellular respiration is chemically similar to ours, this slow oxidation would make their movements similar to if not more deliberate than ours, concealing the rapid cellular metabolism which supports this behavior.

Being metallic, we would expect considerable flux in surface body temperature, changing with the ambient temperature and exposure to solar radiation. It is improbable that this fluctuation would trouble them, as the internal body temperature is stable. If they are composed of tungsten, this may counteract the effect of solar radiation, achieving more stability in surface temperature. If the metal of which they are composed is particularly conductive, it is possible if not outright likely that they will have an innate sensory awareness of and receptivity to electric discharge, a sense which tuned finely enough may allow them to detect other lifeforms by their emitted electric fields. This electroreceptive sense may even be moderately nourishing, in sufficient quantities supplying energy which may catalyze metabolic function.

Imagining Sulfuric Life

Sulfur-based life would be exceptionally reactive on the metabolic level, unless they are founded on a sulfuric compound which is more stable. Assuming this is not the case, we would expect to see a highly variable organism with a dramatic ancestral history, diverse species contemporaries, and varied individual genetics. They would likely be short-lived and neurotic creatures. The high metabolic demands enforced by their chemical reactivity would manifest in an insatiable appetite, likely feeding on a significant biomass of colony organisms similar to whales feeding on krill. Though multicellular forms are possible and perhaps even likely, they are unlikely to become terribly complex, operating with a very utilitarian body structure. Due to their high sulfur content, they would exude a very powerful and noxious odor, undiscernible amongst themselves but foul to us. Their internal pH would likely be quite acidic. If their bodies make extensive use of disulfides, their flesh may be solid and strong, identical in nature to our fingernails.

Imagining Methanogenic Life

Methane-based life would breathe acetylene—the same used in torches—and exhale atmospheric methane. As these are highly flammable compounds, it is possible that under different conditions they may be caused to ignite, producing a fire-breathing organism in the most dramatic sense. Unfortunately such a reaction is exceedingly likely to be lethal; methanogenic lifeforms are likely adapted to extremely cold environments and would therefore have comparably cold internal temperatures. However, we can conceive of methanogenic lifeforms with inflammable compounds such as silicates or metal hydroxides incorporated into their respiratory tract, inhibiting heat damage in the cause of accidental or intentional ignition.

If they evolved to complex multicellular form, we would expect their metabolic rates to be relatively lower than ours, producing the same reptilian deliberation that may be characteristic of silicon-based life. Because acrylonitrile behaves similarly to the phospholipid bilayer, their unicellular and multicellular constitution would be roughly as hardy as terrestrial life. It is interesting if not rather unfortunate to consider that if methanogenic organisms were subjected to the ambient temperatures which are comfortable for us, they would spontaneously sublimate—their very cells would be reduced to vapor.

Imagining Arsenious Life

Because arsenic is not a substitute for carbon in biomolecules, we would not expect arsenious life to differ dramatically from life as we know it. Indeed, simple microbes on earth are known to replace phosphorous in their genetic material with arsenic, and some phosphor-based organisms have been induced to transition to arsenic through environmental manipulation. However, arsenic is notably reactive with sulfur and heavy metals, suggesting that some alien lifeforms may be founded on sulfur-arsenic or metal-arsenic biochemistry, as opposed to the traditional carbon-phosphorus makeup. The inclusion of arsenic in an organism’s biochemical constitution implies that two qualities are likely to develop: resilience and toxicity.

Although in trace amounts it fulfills some dietary requirements, arsenic is highly toxic and possibly lethal to phosphor-based life if it occurs in higher concentrations than necessary. This toxicity is not necessarily inherent in arsenic’s elemental properties; rather, it operates by the mechanism of enzymatic disruption. Thus, if arsenious life uses chemical analogues of these enzymes which are resistant to or even bolstered by the presence of elemental arsenic, such organisms may be well-adapted to life on classically toxic worlds.

This toxicity gives arsenious lifeforms an interesting if somewhat troubling quality—the organic byproducts of their metabolism will contain arsenic in quantities sufficient to cause illness or even death in phosphor-based life. Carbon-arsenic organisms may develop predatory or defensive mechanisms, such as the controlled emission of arsenious fluid, to poison carbon-phosphor organisms with which they coevolved. Even where such mechanisms do not emerge, cohabitation between arsenic- and phosphor-based life is a troubling proposition, and the species may maintain a wide physical berth by necessity.

View the full text here: An Analysis of Alien Prospects.pdf

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