Complex Organic Chemistry In Sulfuric Acid And Life On Venus

Finding extraterrestrial life in any form would be truly one of the largest discoveries in humankind’s history, yet after decades of scouring the surface of Mars and investigating other bodies like asteroids, we still have found no evidence. While we generally assume that we’re looking for carbon-based lifeforms in a water-rich environment like Jupiter’s moon Europa, what if complex organic chemistry would be just as happy with sulfuric acid (H2SO4) as solvent rather than dihydrogen monoxide (H2O)? This is the premise behind a range of recent studies, with a newly published research article in Astrobiology by [Maxwell D. Seager] and colleagues lending credence to this idea.

Previous studies have shown that organic chemistry in concentrated sulfuric acid is possible, and that nucleic acid bases – including adenosine, cytosine, guanine, thymine and uracil which form DNA – are also stable in this environment, which is similar to that of the Venusian clouds at an altitude where air pressure is roughly one atmosphere. In this new article, twenty amino acids were exposed to the concentrations of sulfuric acid usually found on Venus, at 98% and 81%, with the rest being water. Of these, 11 were unchanged after 4 weeks, 9 were reactive on their side chains, much like they would have been in pure water. Only tryptophan ended up being unstable, but as the researchers note, not all amino acids are stable in water either.

The limitations of this research is of course that it was performed in a laboratory environment, with uncontaminated concentrated sulfuric acid, rather than the Venusian clouds with their trace elements of other gases – such as CO2 – and the constant bombardment with meteors that have been shown to often be laced with such amino acids. Future research will take these variables into account, even as scientists cannot wait to get data from upcoming Venus missions, with better sensors that may just catch a glimpse of such organic chemistry in action.

25 thoughts on “Complex Organic Chemistry In Sulfuric Acid And Life On Venus

  1. The cosmic coincidence of the atmospheric pressure and temperature at a certain altitude on Venus both being Earthlike combined with the fact that our habitat atmosphere would be a lifting gas is too tempting. One must imagine great cloud cities held aloft where the sun can still cut through, and all you’d need to go outside is a plastic envelope and an oxygen bottle…

      1. Nope. He speaks of the atmospheric area around 55km where pressure is >0.5 Earth atmosphere at sea level, and temperature is around 27°C. The pressure is what you’d find on Mont Blanc in France and the temperature is close to what you’d find on the Mediterranean sea.

        At that altitude, you don’t need anything to protect from heat, just a acid proof suit and an oxygen bottle for you to breathe.

    1. I can’t imagine why that idea has so much appeal to some. One failure and there is no recovering anyone in your whole city. I mean, if such a place was built I’d love to visit, taking the chance that disaster doesn’t strike during my short stay. But I would be thinking the people living there every day are nuts!

      1. I would think that the amount of atmospheric loss needed for a catastrophic failure would be just as bad as it would be on Mars, there would be almost no chance for it to happen by accident.

        1. I would imagine the city would be quite modular as well, so tethers could be severed in the event a habitat depressurized.

          But you’d have to be quite strict about the people you bring over there, when a single fanatic could destroy the entire colony by targeting essential infrastructure.

  2. Instead of life based on H(#1), C(#6), O(#7), N(#8): Hydrogen, Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, maybe we should be searching for life based on elements row down on the Periodic table: Li(#3), Si(#14), P(#15), S(#16). Although probably not a second row down on the table Na(#11), Ge(#32), As(#33), Se(34). Because heavy elements with atomic numbers higher than Iron (#26) are only formed when stars go supernova. And hence would be less common.

          1. I’ve burned sulphur in air. Long ago it was used as a disinfectant for farm buildings. Burning it in air (blue flame) produces sulphur dioxide which inside a sealed building would react with all moisture to produce sulphuric acid, even inside the lungs of insects.

  3. An interesting mind stretcher, but not gonna happen because if it’s anywhere near as common as water it’s gonna damage all the rocks.

    When exactly did we scour the surface of Mars? I must have missed that episode.

  4. Wouldn’t think 1 atm of pressure would matter nearly as much as temperature. The rule of thumb in chemistry class was a 10C increase in temperature would roughly double reaction rates. Life kind of needs a sweet spot in the temperature scale, warm enough where things can happen but not so hot that it turns into a chaotic soup of free radicals. That range might be different in 90% H2SO4 (if I had to guess .. lower?) than in water.

    The other thing life needs is an energy gradient, where on Venus higher altitudes are going to get more solar input. There could be ways that deeper atmospheric layers might work, but can’t imagine too many organic molecules could endure the surface conditions.

  5. They are wasting their time on Venus. Unless they can get rid of the sulfuric acid clouds and all that ridiculous CO2 on the surface, you may as well establish offshore underwater cities on Earth. And who the heck is going to carry all that payload to establish ‘cloud cities’ on Venus?

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