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Is Titan’s Atmosphere Capable of Evolving DNA?

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Saturn’s moon Titan has many of the components for life without liquid water. But the orange hydrocarbon haze that shrouds Saturn’s largest moon could be creating the molecules that make up DNA without the help of water – an ingredient widely thought to be necessary for the molecules’ formation according to a new study.

The researchers warn however that although Titan’s atmosphere is creating these molecules, that doesn’t mean that the molecules are combining to form life, But the finding could entice astrobiologists to consider a wider range of extrasolar planets as potential hosts for at least simple forms of organic life, the team of scientists from the US and France suggests.The new findings also suggest that billions of years ago Earth’s upper atmosphere – not just the so-called primordial soup on the surface – may have been the sources for these “prebiotic” molecules, amino acids and the so-called nucleotide bases that make up DNA.

“We’re really starting to get a sense for what kind of chemistry an atmosphere is capable of” performing, says Sarah Hörst, a graduate student in planetary science at the University of Arizona, who led the research effort.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has detected large molecules at altitudes of some 600 miles above Titan’s surface. But the molecules are so far unidentified because of limitations to the craft’s instruments. The Cassini research team replicated Titan’s atmosphere in a large chamber at the temperatures present in the moon’s upper atmosphere. To play the role of the sun’s ultraviolet light hitting Titan’s atmosphere, they used radio energy at a power level comparable to a modestly bright light bulb. The UV light is critical because it breaks up molecules such as molecular nitrogen or carbon monoxide in Titan’s atmosphere, leaving the individual atoms to choose up different partners, forming new molecules…

Via Is Titan’s Atmosphere Capable of Evolving DNA?

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