On the possibility of galactic cosmic ray-induced radiolysis-powered life in subsurface environments in the Universe

Dimitra Atri

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

Abstract

Photosynthesis is a mechanism developed by terrestrial life to utilize the energy from photons of solar origin for biological use. Subsurface regions are isolated from the photosphere, and consequently are incapable of utilizing this energy. This opens up the opportunity for life to evolve alternative mechanisms for harvesting available energy. Bacterium Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, found 2.8 km deep in a South African mine, harvests energy from radiolysis, induced by particles emitted from radioactive U, Th and K present in surrounding rock. Another radiation source in the subsurface environments is secondary particles generated by galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). Using Monte Carlo simulations, it is shown that it is a steady source of energy comparable to that produced by radioactive substances, and the possibility of a slow metabolizing life flourishing on it cannot be ruled out. Two mechanisms are proposed through which GCR-induced secondary particles can be utilized for biological use in subsurface environments: (i) GCRs injecting energy in the environment through particle-induced radiolysis and (ii) organic synthesis from GCR secondaries interacting with themedium. Laboratory experiments to test these hypotheses are also proposed. Implications of these mechanisms on finding life in the Solar System and elsewhere in the Universe are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20160459
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Volume13
Issue number123
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016

Keywords

  • Astrobiology
  • Radiolysis
  • Subsurface life

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering

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