With surface temperatures around -180° C, Titan presents problems for astrobiology, even if its seasonal rainfall, lakes and seas, and nitrogen-rich atmosphere bear similarities to Earth. Specifically, what kind of cell membrane can form and function in an environment this cold? Five years ago, researchers at Cornell used molecular simulations to screen for the possibilities, suggesting a membrane the scientists called an azotosome, which would be made out of the nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen molecules known to exist in Titan’s seas.

The azotosome was a useful construct because the phospholipid bilayer membranes giving rise to liposomes on Earth need an analog that can survive Titan’s conditions, a methane-based membrane that can form in cryogenic temperatures. And the Cornell work suggested that azotosomes would create a similar flexibility to cell membranes found on Earth. Titan’s seas of methane and ethane, then, might offer us the chance for a novel form of life to emerge.

Now we have new work out of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden that raises serious doubts about whether azotosomes could develop on Titan. The Cornell work examined the liquid organic compound acrylonitrile, found in Titan’s atmosphere, and built the azotosome idea around it, but the Swedish team’s calculations show that azotosomes are unlikely to be able to self-assemble in Titan’s conditions, for the acrylonitrile would crystalize into its molecular ice.

Martin Rahm (Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Chalmers University of Technology) is co-author of the paper:

“Titan is a fascinating place to test our understanding of the limits of prebiotic chemistry – the chemistry that precedes life. What chemical, or possibly biological, structures might form, given enough time under such different conditions? The suggestion of azotosomes was a really interesting proposal for an alternative to cell membranes as we understand them. But our new research paper shows that, unfortunately, although the structure could indeed tolerate the extremes of Titan, it would not form in the first place.”

This is interesting work, and not only because we are on track to launch Dragonfly in 2026, a mission to investigate the surface and sample different locations around the moon in an assessment of prebiotic chemistry. What we’re seeing is the emergence of computational astrobiology, the necessary follow-on to studies like the predictive work of 2015. The idea is to model the properties and formation routes of the materials proposed as supporting possible biological processes. In this case, we learn that the azotosome structure that looked so promising is not thermodynamically feasible.

But this work hardly eliminates the possibility of life on Titan. What if, the authors speculate, the cell structure itself is not critical? From the paper:

…on Titan, any hypothetical life-bearing macromolecule or crucial machinery of a life form will exist in the solid state and never risk destruction by dissolution. The question is then whether these biomolecules would benefit from a cell membrane. Already rendered immobile by the low temperature, biological macromolecules on Titan would need to rely on the diffusion of small energetic molecules, such as H2, C2H2, or HCN, to reach them in order for growth or replication to ensue. Transport of these molecules might proceed in the atmosphere or through the surrounding methane/ethane environment. A membrane would likely hinder this beneficial diffusion. Similarly, a membrane would likely hinder necessary removal of waste products of metabolism, such as methane and nitrogen, in the opposite direction.

Image: Researchers looking for life on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, used quantum mechanical calculations to investigate the viability of azotosomes, a potential form of cell membrane. Credit: NASA / Yen Strandqvist / Chalmers.

At this stage, as the authors note, the limits of prebiotic chemistry and biology on Titan will have to stay in the realm of speculation, but computations like these can inform the choice of sites for Dragonfly as it explores the moon, helping us to match the reality on the ground with theory.

The paper is Sandström & Rahm, “Can polarity-inverted membranes self-assemble on Titan?” Science Advances Vol. 6, No. 4 (24 January 2020). Full text. The 2015 paper on azotosomes is Stevenson, Lunine & Clancy, “Membrane alternatives in worlds without oxygen: Creation of an azotosome,” Science Advances Vol. 1, No. 1 (27 February 2015), e1400067 (full text).