Space

Phosphorus shortage may make alien life very rare

Phosphorus shortage may make a...
Comparing the amount of phosphorous in the Crab Nebula (pictured) and the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant suggests the element may be rare, making it difficult for life to emerge
Comparing the amount of phosphorous in the Crab Nebula (pictured) and the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant suggests the element may be rare, making it difficult for life to emerge
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Comparing the amount of phosphorous in the Crab Nebula (pictured) and the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant suggests the element may be rare, making it difficult for life to emerge
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Comparing the amount of phosphorous in the Crab Nebula (pictured) and the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant suggests the element may be rare, making it difficult for life to emerge
Spectrum of one position in the Crab Nebula from the William Herschel Telescope, La Palma
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Spectrum of one position in the Crab Nebula from the William Herschel Telescope, La Palma
A 15 cm-wide fragment of the Seymchan iron-nickel meteorite found in Russia in 1967 – the long filament of dark grey material in the centre is the phosphorus-rich mineral schreibersite
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A 15 cm-wide fragment of the Seymchan iron-nickel meteorite found in Russia in 1967 – the long filament of dark grey material in the centre is the phosphorus-rich mineral schreibersite

We may be more alone in the Universe than we realize. According to Cardiff University astronomers Jane Greaves and Phil Cigan, the chemical element phosphorus is abundant on Earth, but may be very rare outside of our Solar System. Because phosphorus is essential to life, it's rarity may mean that life may be equally rare.

One of the pillars of the search for extraterrestrial life is that there is nothing exceptional about the Earth or our Solar System. The assumption is that planets like our Earth, stars like our Sun, and galaxies like our Milky Way are commonplace. Therefore, the conditions that gave rise to life here must also be equally commonplace, so by extension life must also be.

The problem is that the origin and evolution of life are very complex processes that are highly dependent on the presence of various elements and conditions. If one of these elements turns out to be extremely rare, then the spontaneous emergence of life becomes extremely difficult. One example of this is phosphorus, which is relatively common on Earth, but may be the result of an uncommon event.

A 15 cm-wide fragment of the Seymchan iron-nickel meteorite found in Russia in 1967 – the long filament of dark grey material in the centre is the phosphorus-rich mineral schreibersite
A 15 cm-wide fragment of the Seymchan iron-nickel meteorite found in Russia in 1967 – the long filament of dark grey material in the centre is the phosphorus-rich mineral schreibersite

"Phosphorus is one of just six chemical elements on which Earth organisms depend, and it is crucial to the compound Adenosine TriPhosphate (ATP), which cells use to store and transfer energy," says Greaves. "Astronomers have just started to pay attention to the cosmic origins of phosphorus and found quite a few surprises. In particular, [phosphorus] is created in supernovae – the explosions of massive stars – but the amounts seen so far don't match our computer models. I wondered what the implications were for life on other planets if unpredictable amounts of [phosphorus] are spat out into space and later used in the construction of new planets."

To learn more about how phosphorus is produced, in November 2017 the Cardiff scientists turned to Britain's William Herschel Telescope at La Palma in the Canary islands. They used the giant infrared instrument to look at the spectra of phosphorus and iron in the Crab Nebula. Some 6,500 light years away in the constellation of Taurus, the Crab Nebula was formed by a supernova explosion that was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 CE. The idea was that by comparing the spectra of the nebula with that of another supernova remnant, the astronomers could get a better understanding of the origin and distribution of phosphorus.

"This is only the second such study of phosphorus that has been made," says Cigan. "The first looked at the Cassiopeia A (Cas A) supernova remnant, and so we are able to compare two different stellar explosions and see if they ejected different proportions of phosphorus and iron. The first element supports life, while the second is a major part of our planet's core.

"These are our preliminary results, which we extracted only in the last couple of weeks. But at least for the parts of the Crab Nebula we were able to observe so far, there seems to be much less phosphorus than in Cas A. The two explosions seem to differ from each other, perhaps because Cas A results from the explosion of a rare super-massive star. We've just asked for more telescope time to go back and check, in case we've missed some phosphorus-rich regions in the Crab Nebula."

Spectrum of one position in the Crab Nebula from the William Herschel Telescope, La Palma
Spectrum of one position in the Crab Nebula from the William Herschel Telescope, La Palma

According to the team, the comparison indicates that phosphorus may be unevenly distributed in the galaxy, as the element is created by particular types of supernovae and brought to forming planets in meteorites or other objects. This could mean that life arising on Earth could have been dependent on the Solar System forming in the lucky proximity of a phosphorus-spewing supernova. However, other planets might not have been so lucky. To find out if this is the case, the Cardiff team plans to look at other supernovae remnants to see if a similar phosphorus shortage can be seen.

"The route to carrying phosphorus into new-born planets looks rather precarious," says Greaves. "We already think that only a few phosphorus-bearing minerals that came to the Earth – probably in meteorites – were reactive enough to get involved in making proto-biomolecules.

"If phosphorus is sourced from supernovae, and then travels across space in meteoritic rocks, I'm wondering if a young planet could find itself lacking in reactive phosphorus because of where it was born? That is, it started off near the wrong kind of supernova? In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry, on another world otherwise similar to our own."

The research will be presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society, Cardiff University

8 comments
Safnhuo
Mkay, so here's the problem. Phosphorus is needed for life on earth to be spontaneously created. We are talking about alien life, life that is completely different from life on earth, hince it is alien. You are trying to determine the existence of something alien, based on centric information. That's like me claiming that everyone puts garlic and parsley in their scrambled eggs, because that's how I've always cooked them. This is the issue that I have with both the scientific community and conspiracy freaks when it comes to the subject of alien life. Instead of realizing that no one can conclude what alien life is like or whether it exists or not, until we finally discover it to which we can then study it, both groups just make asinine assumptions about something no one knows anything about at the current moment. You are scientists for crying out loud. You should know better than this.
TedMart
Thank you safnhuo for raising that point. It has long been an irritation to me that our search for 'life' beyond what we find on Earth is always focused only on 'life' AS WE KNOW IT, and excludes the infinite possibilities of 'life' that are not based strictly on the biological needs of Earth dwellers. It bothers me even more that in any given explanation of this search, it is never even mentioned that the search is being limited in this way, the assumption being that if it isn't formed by the same biological base as our own, it isn't worthy of the title 'life'. And don't even get me started on our bigoted concepts of what constitutes cosmic 'intelligence'.
Rustin Lee Haase
So, we now have one more factor for the Drake Equation. This is simply more evidence that it is better to scrap that theory and go with the Anthropic Principle, the idea that since we are the observer life form and with a sample of only one, cannot possibly generate a reasonable statistic of our own probability and consequenlty unobserved others. We have no way of knowing how many parameters are out there with us in the "Goldilocks Zone" since we would already be in it. Acedemics don't like not knowing things but in this situation it is best to embrace the phrase "We just don't know." Its hard to write a paper or thesis saying that but it is our best estimate of the truth.
bwana4swahili
Phosphorous may be crucial to life on Earth but who really knows what other lifeforms require!? Yet more scientific guessing...
BeinThayer
Safnhuo, Tedmart, bwana4swahili; You are mistaking an informative/entertainment distillation of a science-related topic for the actual underlying science. What you have read is intended to be interesting to readers. This is not the actual research. What you have read does not delve into supporting assumptions for the rigors of peer review. The researchers are not the authors of the above article. There are quotes above for people involved in the research. Those quotes don't actually convey the claims you assign. The quotes suggest what is typical in science: very specific statements couched in caveats acknowledging ever present uncertainty. Just look at the actual quotes and notice all the words like: 'may', 'could', 'think', 'wonder', etc. What you are denegrating science and scientists for is not something for which there is any evidence here. On a second point, merely because things might be able to occur in more than one way and mighy possibly take wildly different forms does not lessen the value of allocating limited resources to search in places likely if additional occurences do share similarities with every recorded instance to date. If birds were exceedingly rare and you wanted to find one, you would be better served looking in the air, on tree limbs, or on water, than if you reasoned that despite all known birds inhabiting one of those locations for extended periods, digging in the mud might be a good use of your time because no one has ever proven that no birds exist that live like worms and fly/swim through mud. It isn't so much possibility as probability that drives good decision making.
Ralf Biernacki
There is limited variability in chemistry. It was once thought that silicon-based life was a possible alternative, but a deeper understanding of organic chemistry showed that there was no reasonable alternative to carbon compounds---silicon allows for less than 1% of the chemical versatility of carbon. The story is similar with other features of life: there is no reasonable alternative known to lipid cell membranes, to nucleic acids, to polypeptides---any exotic substitutes simply do not have the scope, or are severely impermanent. Neither is there a reasonable alternative to water as a biological solvent. I am not sure whether this holds for phosphate compounds as energy carriers. Possibly it does, because of the way they interact with membrane chemistry. If so, the authors are right that phosphorus is the only way. But this is not quite as certain as the water and carbon requirements.
Bob
When you consider all of the things that support life on earth it becomes very obvious that ALL the necessary conditions occurring together are very rare. Intelligent life very likely does not exist anywhere else in the universe or at the very least not many places. Probability is an interesting tool but doesn't prove anything. You can predict the probability of every air molecule in the room being in only one half of the room at a given moment. Will this ever happen? No.
neutrino23
This is interesting work, but with an incredibly small sample size. P is thought to be relatively abundant in the universe. Look for articles about galactic abundance of the elements. P is about as abundant as Cl and K. I would add, that if P is so important then life might find a way to conserve it. The soils in Australia are relatively poor but there were forests there when Europeans first arrived. Those forests evolved to "recycle" the scarce elements they needed. Leaf litter and tree trunks fall to the forest floor where they composted in a way that makes these elements available to new growth. Alien life could do the same, finding ways to concentrate and recycle important elements. Since P is an element it can never decay or rot so it can be recycled forever as long as there is an input of energy to drive the system.