Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and, hands down, one of the most intriguing moons of our solar system, has just become all the more fascinating. A recent paper has announced the discovery of acrylonitrile (more commonly known as Vinyl Cyanide) in Titan’s atmosphere. This molecule is a vital component for cell formation, therefore its presence is a strong indicator that life could well exist in one of Titan’s many lakes and seas.
After scouring through archival data collected in 2014 by ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), a set of 66 radio telescopes situated in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, astronomers detected the three strongest rotational lines of C2H3CN – i.e. the unique electromagnetic fingerprint of vinyl cyanide.
Vinyl cyanide: why is it needed for life on Titan?
Vinyl cyanide is hypothesised to join together to form a cell membrane, the outer layer of a cell that creates a tiny enclosed environment. It’s in here that it allows biochemical reactions to take place within the cell as well as protecting and encasing all the vital parts of the cell such as the nucleus.
On Earth, cell membranes are made of phospholipids, a molecules made of two parts – a water-loving (hydrophilic), oxygen rich head and a water-repelling (hydrophobic) set of tails. Due to a small charge imbalance the head of a phospholipid is ‘polar’, but the tail is not and is referred to as ‘non-polar’.
If you chuck a load of these phospholipids in water the polar heads are attracted to one another and would join together, forming a sheet-like structure. Since the non-polar tails repel water, they would join end to end, meaning these two sheets would come together to form a bi-layer. It’s this phospholipid bi-layer that makes up the cell membranes here are on Earth.
This is how the two …read more