I've been told that life on earth is carbon-based, Then I got curious about one thing: What are the possible bases for life and under which circumstances could lifr based on other elements exist?

If the existence of a silicon-based life is possible and if it is, under what temperature, pressure, etc?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The general consensus is that carbon is unique in its ability to form stable chains, to bond to a variety of other 'useful' atoms (e.g. N,O), and to form stable double bonds, all of which are central to life. There is some useful speculation at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silicon_based_life#Silicon_biochemistry $\endgroup$ – Alan Boyd Sep 23 '12 at 8:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is more of a chemistry than a biology question. You are basically asking what other element has similar bonding capabilities as carbon and could be used to form the chemical backbone of complex macromolecules. Maybe you should try your luck at Chemistry.SE $\endgroup$ – terdon Sep 23 '12 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ I've found also a book on astrobiology, but still don't know if it's gonna be useful. $\endgroup$ – Billy Rubina Sep 25 '12 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ OK, I'll bite... $\endgroup$ – Poshpaws Sep 25 '12 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ One thing that hasn't be mentioned and should is that there is no consensus on how to define what life exactly is. Basically, all known life form is carbon-base, so say you would find some other "life-form" that is not carbon-based, how would you even tell if it is alive? $\endgroup$ – Bitwise Sep 29 '12 at 1:18

This is an interesting question, particularly considered in the context that Cairns-Smith (1985) even suggested that clays (silicates in solution) may have had some sort of early selection acting on them due to their surface chemistries.

However, there are a number of major problems with Silicon. Some are chemical and some are astrophysical in nature. For example:

  • Silicon has a lower electronegativity than carbon and a longer bond length. Silicon can polymerize, but many conformations (such as rings) are highly reactive or unstable.
  • Silicon lacks chirality. Since biochemical reactions are very specific this may present a fundamental problem for alien biochemistries.
  • We don't see silicon macromolecules in nature. Large carbon molecules are seen in space such a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon rings. The largest silicon molecule seen in space is a chain of SiC_3 (and maybe SiC_4).
  • On reacting with oxygen (which it does readily) silicon likes to form solids like sand.
  • Silicon is much less common than Carbon in the Universe. The Solar abundance of silicon is 1/10 that of carbon, and supernova yields suggest that the silicon abundance may be as low as 1/100 that of carbon during nucleosynthesis in low/intermediate mass stars.

To form complex silicon molecules we would probably need to keep it in an oxygen-free environment and somehow maintain it in solution. One possibility would be to hold it at high pressure and temperature such as in the interiors of planets (think deep hot biosphere theory) but this presents another host of problems for conceivable biochmistries and is very speculative.

Apponi, A.J., McCarthy, M.C., Gottlieb, C.A., & Thaddeus, P. 1999, Journal of Chemical Physics, 111, 3911

Cairns-Smith, A. G. (1985) Seven Clues to the Origin of Life Cambridge University Press, New York, ISBN 0-521-27522-9.

Woosley, S.E., & Weaver, T.A. 1995, Astrophysical Journal Supplement, 101, 181

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's an interesting question. However I suspect we'll be finding lots of weird carbon-based slime rather than anything silicon based. However, it's a big Universe out there! $\endgroup$ – Poshpaws Sep 27 '12 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking about another environmental condition where it could happen, but I have no idea if such a thing would be possible. $\endgroup$ – Billy Rubina Sep 29 '12 at 21:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.