Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


 

8.2.3 Alternatives to Carbon

Why do lifeforms prefer carbon?

Few elements can compete with its ability to combine with many different kinds of other atoms. As for its ability to form long, polymeric chains, carbon knows no equal. There are many who believe that the element is "uniquely qualified" for the job of life. They may well be correct.

The idea of living systems founded on a radically different chemical basis from ours has been around for a long time. It was already old hat in 1908 when Dr. J.E. Reynolds, a British biochemist, delivered a paper on the subject at a meeting of the Royal Institution in London. The reviewer for Chemical Abstracts wearily reported:

... It contains no new matter. The author advances a speculative theory as to the probability of a "high temperature protoplasm" containing silicon in place of carbon and phosphorus in place of nitrogen, and points out that silicon found in certain animal and plant cells may actually be a constituent of the protoplasm of such cells.1608

Among xenologists, the possibility of silicon (Si) -based extraterrestrial lifeforms was raised by the British astronomer Sir Harold Spencer Jones as early as 1940.44 In more recent times, silicon-based structures have become perhaps the best-known and most commonly advanced proposal as an exotic biochemistry for aliens (Figure 8.3).

 


Figure 8.3 Depiction of a silicon-based lifeform in science fiction

The Horta, a silicon-based lifeform depicted in an episode of Star Trek, crouches in fear of the approaching humans. The small mineral nodules littering the subterranean lair are the creature’s eggs.


 

This is because Si lies directly below C in the Carbon Family of the Periodic Table of the Elements (Table 8.5). Members of the same family are expected, more or less, to have similar chemical properties and to form analogous compounds.

There have been numerous objections to silicon life from all quarters of the scientific community.

A common protest, for example, is based on the relative cosmic scarcity of Si as compared to C. From Table 8.6, we note that carbon is roughly an order of magnitude more abundant than silicon in the universe.

 


Table 8.6 Cosmic Abundance of the Elements1413
Atomic Number
Element
Symbol
Abundances of Atoms
(normalized to
Si = 103
  Atomic
Number
Element
Symbol
Abundances of Atoms
(normalized to
Si = 103
1
Hydrogen
H
31800000.   44  Ruthenium
Ru
0.0019
Helium
He
  2210000.   45 Rhodium 
Rh
0.0004 
3
Lithium
Li
              0.0495   46 Palladium
Pd
0.0013
4
Beryllium
Be
              0.00081   47 Silver
Ag
0.00045
5
Boron
B
              0.350   48 Cadmium
Cd
0.00148
6
Carbon
C
     11800.   49 Indium
In
0.000189
7
Nitrogen
N
       3740.   50 Tin
Sn
0.0036
8
Oxygen
0
     21500.   51 Antimony
Sb
0.000316
9
Fluorine
F
             2.45   52 Tellurium
Te
0.00642
10
Neon
Ne
       3440.   53 Iodine
I
0.00109
11
Sodium
Na
           60.   54 Xenon
Xe
0.00538
12
Magnesium
Mg
       1061.   55 Cesium
Cs
0.000387
13
Aluminum
Al
           85.   56 Barium
Ba
0.0048
14
Silicon
Si
       1000.   57 Lanthanum
La
0000445
15
Phosphorus
P
             9.6   58 Cerium
Ce
0.00118
16
Sulfur
S
         500.   59 Praseodymium
Pr
0.000149
17
Chlorine
Cl
             5.7   60 Neodymium
Nd
0.00078
18
Argon
Ar
         117.2   62 Samarium
Sm
0.000226
19
Potassium
K
             4.2   63 Europium
Eu
0.000085
20
Calcium
Ca
           72.1   64 Gadolinium
Gd
0.000297
21
Scandium
Sc
             0.035   65 Terbium
Tb
0.000055
22
Titanium
Ti
             2.775   66 Dysprosium
Dy
0.00036
23
Vanadium
V
             0.262   67 Holmium
Ho
0.000079
24
Chromium
Cr
           12.7   68 Erbium
Er
0.000225
25
Manganese
Mn
             9.3   69 Thulium
Tm
0.000034
26
Iron
Fe
         830.   70 Ytterbium
Yb
0.000216
27
Cobalt
Co
             2.21   71 Lutetium
Lu
0.000036
28
Nickel
Ni
           48.   72 Hafnium
Hf
0.00021
29
Copper
Cu
             0.54   73 Tantalus
Ta
0.000021
30
Zinc
Zn
             1.244   74 Tungsten
W
0.00006
31
Gallium
Ga
             0.048   75 Rhenium
Re
0.000053
32
Germanium
Ge
             0.115   76 Osmium
Os
0.00075
33
Arsenic
As
             0.0066   77 Iridium
Ir
0.000717
34
Selenium
Se
             0.0672   78 Platinum
Pt
0.0014
35
Bromine
Br
             0.0135   79 Gold
Au
0.000202
36
Krypton
Kr
             0.0468   80 Mercury
Hg
0.0004
37
Rubidium
Rb
             0.00588   81 Thallium
11
0.000192
38
Strontium
Sr
             0.0269   82 Lead
Pb
0.004
39
Yttrium
Y
             0.0048   83 Bismuth
Bi
0.000143
40
Zirconium
Zr
             0.028   90 Thorium
Th
0.000058
41
Niobium
Nb
             0.0014   92 Uranium
U
0.0000262
42
Molybdenum
Mo
             0.004  


 

But the real business of biochemical evolution takes place on planetary surfaces. The Earth, Moon, and Mars are remarkably similar in their silicon content -- roughly 25-30% of the total topsoil. But on this planet, Si atoms outnumber those of C by more than two orders of magnitude (Table 8.7). Organics are present in lunar soil only to the extent of a few parts per million, and on Mars there is no trace of carbon in the crust even at the parts-per-billion level.

Carbon is actually rare!*

 


Table 8.7 Comparative Elemental Abundances6,96,1413,1470
 (weight %)
Element Universe Earth’s Crust
Seawater
Human Body
Hydrogen 91. %   0.22 % 66. % 63. %
Helium   9.1 %   0.0000003 % 
--
--
Oxygen   0.063 % 47. % 33. % 25.5 %
Carbon   0.035 %   0.19 %   0.0014 %   9.4 %
Nitrogen   0.011 %    0.015 %   0.000745 %   1.4 %
Neon   0.010 %
--
--
--
Magnesium   0.0031 %    2.2 %   0.033 %   0.013 %
Silicon   0.0029 % 28. %   0.00011 %
--
Iron   0.0024 %    4.5 %   0.0000005 %   0.0038 %
Sulfur   0.0015 %    0.026 %    0.017 %   0.049 %
Aluminum   0.00025 %    7.9 %   0.000014 %
--
Calcium    0.00021 %    3.5 %   0.006 %   0.3 %
Sodium   0.00018 %    2.5 %   0.28 %   0.041 %
Phosphorus   0.000028 %   0.026 %    0.0000016 %   0.21 %
Chlorine    0.000017 %    0.032 %    0.33 %   0.026 %
Potassium   0.000012 %    2.5 %   0.006 %   0.057 %
Titanium   0.000008 %    0.46 %    0.00000014 %
--


 

A few have suggested that since carbon-based Earth life exhales carbon dioxide, a gas, silicon-based lifeforms must surely "breathe out silicon dioxide, SiO2, which is quartz: a painful process . . ."49 It is difficult to find any merit to this biochauvinistic objection. Silicon organisms probably are able to survive only in a reducing, oxygen-free environment -- so SiO2 should not be produced at all. Even if it is, it’s not clear why an extraterrestrial lithomorph should find the excretion of sand at all painful.

A seemingly more valid challenge is the contention that any available prebiotic silicon atoms will be irreversibly locked into large, heavy SiO2 polymers, making it impossible for them to participate in any life chemistry. But silicon dioxide is far from absolutely stable. In fact, it is the original material in the synthesis of many silicon-organic molecules under the action of various chemical reagents.26

Another common complaint is that the number of carbon compounds catalogued -- perhaps two million or so -- greatly exceeds the total number of silicon-based substances known to chemists today -- about 20,000, two orders of magnitude less.

But the only reason a class of compounds is found may be because someone went looking for them. As few as twenty-seven organosilicon molecules were known at the turn of the century, and real interest in silicon chemistry began to accelerate just a few decades ago. Furthermore, the pitiful number of scientists currently engaged in silicon research is dwarfed by the armada of pharmaceutical houses and petrochemists flying the flag of carbon.

As Carl Sagan notes with some amusement: "Much more attention has been paid to carbon organic chemistry than to silicon organic chemistry, largely because most biochemists we know are of the carbon, rather than the silicon, variety."15

The inability of lone Si atoms to readily hook together to form very long chain polymers is often cited as the fatal flaw in all silicon biochemistry schemes. But exactly how crucial is this ability to concatenate?

In Earthly proteins, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids -- the three most important and common polymer types -- the C-C linkages rarely include more than a few consecutive atoms. Organic side chains may contain up to eight, and fats and various vitamin complexes use even more successive carbons, but the basic molecular backbone of life is served by only a few. For instance, most proteins consist of a repeating -C-C-N- unit, a mere two carbons in a row.

Biochemistries need stable polymers, not long chains of similar backbone atoms (Figure 8.4).

 


Figure 8.4 Carbon-Family Analogues for Life: Polymers of
Silicon (Si),1603,1649,2348 Germanium (Ge),1572 Tin (Sn),1596 and Lead (Pb)1696
 CH3  CH3   CH3
|    |    |
—Si—O—Si—O—Si—
|    |    |
 CH3  CH3  CH3
Polydimethylsiloxane -- A typical silicone polymer. Stable up to approximately 250 C.
  C6H5  C6H5 C6H5
|    |    |
—Si—O—Si—O—Si—
|    |    |
O    O    O
|    |    |
—Si—O—Si—O—Si— 
|    |    |
 C6H5  C6H5 C6H5
Phenylsilicone "ladder polymer"-Remains stable up to about 300 C.
  H H CH3 H H CH3
| | |  | | |
—C—C—Ge—C—C—Ge—
 | | |  | | | 
  H H CH3 H H CH3
Dimethylated polygermane organopolymer.
 H CH3 H CH3 H CH3
 | |  | |  |  | 
—C—Sn—C—Sn—C—Sn—
 | |  | |  |  | 
 H CH3 H CH3 H CH3
Diorganotins -- Forms liquids or resinous, glassy, or rubbery polymeric solids, depending in the nature of the organic side-group.
Butylpolystannoxane polymer, n ~10-13.

Colorless, soluble in chloroform and CCl4. Reasonably stable to hydrolysis(water) and to heating up to about 250 C.

  C6H5 C6H5  C6H5
|    |    |
—Pb—O—Pb—O—Pb—
|    |    |
  C6H5 C6H5  C6H5
Polymeric diphenyllead oxide.

 


 

Silicon, in combination with nitrogen and oxygen, forms a variety of ring-shaped and chain-polymer macromolecules stable in high ultraviolet radiation fluxes (such as might be found near a class F star or on the surface of an unshielded planet like Mars) and at low temperatures as well.1597 Silane (SiH4), the silicon analogue of methane with a repulsive odor, remains a liquid between 88.l K and 161.4 K. It might serve as a solvent for a cold silicon biochemistry under anhydrous reducing conditions. The Si halides might also work, though at somewhat higher temperatures.

Unfortunately, Si-Si bonds tend to break up in the presence of ammonia, oxygen, or water, all of which are more likely to appear on a colder world. This difficulty disappears in a hot environment in which the role of oxygen has been usurped by its chemical cousin, sulfur. The problem then becomes one of preventing the low-energy Si-Si bonds from tearing themselves to pieces in the blistering heat.1172

At present, the biggest obstacle is in devising plausible pathways of prebiotic evolution (Figure 8.5). Carbon seems more competitive under most conditions we can readily imagine.** Yet as Dr. Molton says, "this may be due to our own ignorance of silicon chemistry as much as to any inherent theoretical difficulty."1132

 


Figure 8.5 Possible Prebiotic Biochemicals Usable by Si or SiC Life352,1132,1597,1649
H
|
H—Si—H
|
H
Silane
(silicon analogue of methane)
H  H
|  |
H—Si—Si—H
|  |
H  H
Disilane (silicon analogue of ethane)
H  H
|  |
H—C—Si—H
|  |
H  H
Methylsilicane
Produced using silicon in H2, CH4
atmosphere in Miller-type experiment with electrical discharge and BCl3 catalyst.
H
|
  H—Si—NH2
|
H
Silylamine
Analogue to methylamine in carbon chemistry. Many other Si-amines exist. C-amines of great importance in terrestrial biochemistry.
HO2SiSiO2
Oxyprosiloxane
Silicon analogue of oxalic acid.
   Cl Cl  [  Cl  ]  Cl Cl
   |  |   |  |   |  |  |
Cl—Si—Si— | -Si— | —Si—Si—Cl
   |  |   |  |   |  |  |
   Cl Cl  [  Cl  ]n Cl Cl
Perchloropolysilane --
Prepared by heating SiCl4 in H2 atmosphere at 1000 C, using quartz catalyst. Demonstrates Si-Si bond stability up to n=21.
    CH3  CH3 [ CH3 ] CH3 CH3
    |    |   | |  |  |  |
CH3—Si — Si— |—Si—| —Si—Si—CH3
    |    |   | |  |  |  |
    CH3  CH3 [ CH3 ]n CH3 CH3
Permethylated linear polysilanes --
Long chain organosilicon polymers up to n=8. Stable to oxygen and water.
Cyclohexyltrichlorosilane

Produced in Miller-type experiment by sparking a mixture of SiCl4 and C6H12 in the absence of water.


 

In the last few decades a broad, new class of silicon polymers has been discovered which might serve as a basis for life. These substances, known as siloxanes to the chemist and as "silicones" in popular parlance, are extremely stable in the presence of oxygen and water. In fact, many silicones are formed by the action of water on the Si-Si bond.

This novel class of compounds is now under intensive investigation, as they have been found to exhibit a wide range of fascinating properties. There are rubbery silicones, analogous to soft living tissue, which remain flexible and "elastomeric" across a span of temperature that few organic polymers can match. There are hard silicone resins with impact and tensile strengths comparable to those of bone, and which retain their stoutness in hot environments.1607,1610

Silicone liquids are useful as hydraulic fluids, and some of them have very handy peculiarities. For example, polydimethylsiloxane is an oil with variable mechanical properties strikingly similar to those of mammalian synovial fluid (a kind of bone joint lubricant).230

Some silicone rubbers are selectively permeable to specific gases. One rubber which passes oxygen has been tested in artificial gill devices designed to extract the dissolved gas from seawater for the benefit of human divers.2348 These compounds are generally less active chemically, stronger, more heat-resistant and more durable than their carbon counterparts.

The molecular architecture of the silicones is relatively simple. Silicones have a backbone, not of Si atoms alone but rather of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms. The side chains can be organic, and are as complicated as any in terrestrial organic chemistry. Silicones appear to possess an information-carrying capacity and a complexity of structure as required for a successful biochemistry.

There remain two problems with such silicon-oxygen lifeforms, which must be dealt with before the plausibility of their existence can be acknowledged.

First, many silicones tend to disassemble into ring molecules at temperatures of roughly 300-350 °C. (Similar behavior is observed in most complex carbon compounds, but at somewhat lower temperatures.) It would be difficult for silicones to remain stable in much hotter climes, and it is unclear whether this slight thermal advantage is enough to enable Si to out-compete C in a high temperature regime.

There do exist a few silicon polymers that can really get out of carbon’s league. Certain Si-C combinations are good to at least 500 °C, and various aluminum-silicon structures can reach 600 °C without destruction.

The second problem that must be faced is a familiar one: How do we arrange for a plausible prebiotic evolutionary sequence? Natural planetary conditions, by and large, are not conducive to the prebiotic synthesis of silicones.

Worse, recall that most of the complexity of the silicones is derived from the carbon side chains they possess. In spite of their greater thermal stability, these Si polymers may find themselves in an indirect competition with carbon-based macromolecules.

On any world in which the carbon chemistry had evolved sufficiently far to allow C side chains (as on the Si backbone) of the requisite complexity, it is far more likely that these carbon chains would form polymers among themselves rather than splicing onto an "alien" silicone backbone molecule.

Of course, silicon is not the only game in town. Other members of the Carbon Family might stand in for C, although this is much less likely.

Germanium has been suggested as an analogue to carbon in some biochemical systems. N.W. Pirie has cited some rather dubious evidence for germanium-based protobionts in Earth’s past: The excessive concentration of Ge in the Hartley coal seam in Northumberland, England.2347

But we are not restricted to the Carbon Family in our quest for analogues to C. One alternative not widely known outside specialist circles involves a tricky arrangement with the element boron (B).1172,2089,2446

Looking at the Periodic Table, we see that boron lies just to the left, and nitrogen just to the right, of carbon. One might well suspect that a kind of averaging effect could take place if the two elements were combined, resulting in some sort of "pseudocarbon" system.

Indeed, this does occur. There are compounds made of alternating boron and nitrogen atoms which closely parallel their organic counterparts in many ways. They have the same types of bonds, similar molecular weights, similar physical and chemical properties, and so forth. A few possibilities are illustrated on the following page by comparing a series of common carbon compounds with their boron-nitrogen analogues (Figure 8.6).

 


Figure 8.6 Boron-Nitrogen Analogues
Benzene
(A common solvent in organic chemistry

Colorless liquid
Molecular weight = 78.11
Melting point = 279K
Boiling point = 353K
Density = 0.88 gm/cm3
insoluble in water

Borazine
 ("Inorganic benzene")

Colorless liquid
Molecular weight = 80.50
Melting point = 215K
Boiling point = 328K
Density = 0.86 gm/cm3
Decomposes in water

Methyl benzene

(Toluene. another common organic solvent)
Colorless liquid
Molecular weight = 92.13
Melting point = 178K
Boiling point = 384K
insoluble in water

Methyl borazine

("Inorganic toluene")
Colorless liquid
Molecular weight = 94.53
Melting point = 214K
Boiling point = 360K
Decomposes in water

Graphite

(High-temperature lubricant)
Slippery black powder
Planar polymer in overlapping sheets
Sublimes 3925-3970K
Insoluble in water

Diamond

(Compressed graphite)
Colorless, cubic crystal
Hard enough to scratch any substance 
Burns in air at 1170K 
 

White Graphite

("Inorganic graphite")
Slippery white powder
Planar polymer in overlapping sheets
Sublimes ~3300K
Insoluble in water

Boron Diamond (Borazon) 

("Inorganic diamond")
Colorless, cubic crystal
Hard enough to scratch diamond
Burns in air at 2170K
 

Dimethyl butene

Colorless liquid
Molecular weight = 84.16
Melting point = 199K
Boiling point = 346K
Soluble in organic solvents (ethanol, ether, etc.) 

Dimethyl borine

Colorless liquid
Molecular weight = 84.99
Melting point = 181K
Boiling point = 338K
Soluble in organic solvents (ethanol, other, etc.)
 


 

While some B-N polymers are known to be stable to high temperatures, many such substances turn out to be less stable with heat. Borazine, the boron-nitrogen analogue to benzene, is more susceptible to chemical attack because of its greater reactivity. The presence of water tends to degrade most B-N polymeric compounds.

Part of these difficulties can be eliminated by switching to other combinations which also give a "pseudocarbon" effect. There are the boron-phosphorus (borophane) and the boron-arsenic (boroarsane) systems, which are known to be extraordinarily stable and inert to thermal decomposition. These substances might serve on high temperature worlds if the abundance problem could be licked.

A completely different kind of exotic biochemistry is the possibility of halogen life. Members of the Halogen Family, of which fluorine and chlorine are the most abundant, could conceivably replace hydrogen atoms in whole or in part. This would apply to biological macromolecules constructed on the basis of carbon, silicon, or any other viable backbone system.

An oxygen-poor star might give rise to planets with abnormally high concentrations of free halogen. This is not as unreasonable as it might sound at first. The element phosphorus, a common atom in Earthly biochemistry, has a cosmic abundance approximately equal to that of fluorine and chlorine. Thus, the availability and use of halogens by alien lifeforms cannot be categorically ruled out.

There might exist water oceans and an atmosphere rich in chlorine or fluorine. Peter Molton has proposed a respiration-photosynthesis cycle for such a world, involving carbon tetrachloride as the halogen analogue of methane.1132

Going still further out on a limb, Isaac Asimov has set forth the possibility of fluorocarbon (Teflon) or chlorocarbon polymers floating in seas of molten sulfur. "No one," the Doctor gently chides, "has yet dealt with the problem of fluoroproteins or has even thought of dealing with it."2344 No one, that is, except science fiction writers.1359

Actually, polymers of any kind should be of interest to xenobiologists (Figure 8.7). Since the basis of all life appears to be the polymeric organization of small molecules into larger ones, polymer chemistry seems a reasonable avenue to explore for alternative biochemistries.

 


Figure 8.7 Other Polymers of Possible Xenobiochemical Interest

Cyclosilazanes1599
Cyclosilthians1600
Polysilazanes1599
Polymeric diphenyltin1603
              CH3      CH3               CH
                 |        |                 | 
- O - Al - O - Si - O - Si - O - Al - O - Si - O - Al -
      |        |        |        |        |        | 
        OC6H5     CH3      CH3     OC6H5     CH3     OC6H
"Random" silicon-aluminum copolymer1603
    Cl      Cl      Cl 
    |       |       | 
= N - P = N - P = N - P =N-
    |       |       | 
     Cl      Cl      Cl 
Polymeric phosphonitrilic chloride1603
Polyphosphazine chloride trimer2348
     CH3HN   CH3HN   CH3HN 
    |       |       | 
= N - P = N - P = N - P =N-
    |       |       | 
     CH3HN   CH3HN   CH3HN 
SUBSTITUTED
PHOSPHAZENES
CF3CH2O  CH3CH2O  CF3CH2O
    |       |       | 
= N - P = N - P = N - P =N-
    |       |       | 
CF3CH2O  CH3CH2O  CF3CH2O
(a water-soluble polymer)2348
 (film-forming flexible crystalline thermoplastic)2348
BORON
POLYMERS
Dimethyl polyborophanes1574
 Polymeric silyl orthoborates1573


 

In view of various deficiencies in normal carbonaceous organic chains, many other classes have been examined in recent times.2348 According to H. R. Allcock, a chemist at Pennsylvania State University, "a new revolution based on organic polymers is about to begin."

Silicon-nitrogen rubbers and oils have been known for many years. These compounds, called silazanes, are unstable in the presence of water or in an oxygen atmosphere.1598 Inorganic polymers with alternating silicon and boron atoms have turned up recently, and a boron-oxygen-silicon linkage is used in the well-known "silly putty." Various carbon-boron ("carborane") polymers which are quite stable have been discussed in the literature,1575 along with short-chain nitrogen, sulfur, and silicon-sulfur arrangements.

Phosphorus, nitrogen, and chlorine combine to form a kind of rubber in a water-free environment. These "polyphosphazines," as the chemists love to call them, are normally highly unstable in the presence of H2. However, it has recently been learned that short segments can be polymerized and made water-stable.

Soon after this discovery, the elated researchers wrote: "... it now seems likely that almost any set of required properties can be designed into the polymer by a judicious choice of side groups." The proposal that polyphosphazine polymers be used in biomedical applications to transport fixed metal ions2351 suggests a wide range of xenobiochemical applications, perhaps analogous to the metal-containing complexes in chlorophyll and hemoglobin.

 


* While more than thirty carbonaceous molecules have been detected in the interstellar void by radioastronomers, only two silicon compounds -- the monoxide (SiO) and the sulfide (SiS) -- had been found as of 1976.1002 This may, however, reflect more the zeal and interests of the searchers than the true ubiquity of molecular species containing silicon.

** It should be noted that partial substitution of Si for C occurs even in terrestrial skeletal components (e.g., diatoms, some grasses, etc.) and in protoplasm.1551,1649 Dr. Alan G. MacDiarmid, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, has succeeded in forcing bacteria to take up silicon analogues of various carbon compounds in their nutrients. He has conducted similar experiments using analogues based on germanium (Ge),1172 the element directly below silicon in the Periodic Table and whose compounds have long been known to possess certain medical properties.1576

 


Last updated on 6 December 2008