The lipid bilayer membrane, which is the foundation of life on Earth, is not viable outside of biology based on liquid water. This fact has caused astronomers who seek conditions suitable for life to search for exoplanets within the “habitable zone,” the narrow band in which liquid water can exist. However, can cell membranes be created and function at temperatures far below those at which water is a liquid? We take a step toward answering this question by proposing a new type of membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds, that is capable of forming and functioning in liquid methane at cryogenic temperatures. Using molecular simulations, we demonstrate that these membranes in cryogenic solvent have an elasticity equal to that of lipid bilayers in water at room temperature. As a proof of concept, we also demonstrate that stable cryogenic membranes could arise from compounds observed in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon, Titan, known for the existence of seas of liquid methane on its surface.
Membrane alternatives in worlds without oxygen: Creation of an azotosome
James Stevenson, Jonathan Lunine, Paulette Clancy
Science Advances 27 Feb 2015: Vol. 1 no. 1 e1400067 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400067