Those thoughts introduce a subsidiary theme of this report. It is conceivable that chemistry, structure, or environments able to support life were not suited for the initiation of life. For example, Earth can support life today, but prevailing views hold that life could not have originated in an atmosphere that is as oxidizing as Earth’s today. If that is true, the surface of Earth would be an environment that is habitable but not able to give rise to life.
We have only one example of biomolecular structures that solve problems posed by requirements for life, and the human mind finds it difficult to create ideas truly different from what it already knows. It is thus difficult for us to imagine how life might look in planetary environments very different from what we find on Earth. Recognizing that difficulty, the committee chose to embrace it. The committee exploited a strategy that began with characterization of the terran life that humankind has known well, first because of its macroscopic visibility and then through microscopic observation that began in earnest 4 centuries ago. This, of course, is like life that is associated with humankind. As the next step in the strategic process, the committee assembled a set of observations about life that is considered exotic when compared with human-like life. Exploration of Earth has taken researchers to environments that human-like organisms find extreme, to the highest temperatures at which liquid water is possible, to the lowest temperatures at which water is liquid, to the depths of the ocean where pressures are high, to extremes of acidity and alkalinity, to places where the energy flux is too high for human-like life to survive, to locales where thermodynamic disequilibria are too scarce to support human-like life, and to locations where the chemical environment is toxic to human-like life.
The committee then asked, Can we identify environments on Earth where Darwinian processes that exploit human-like biochemistry cannot exploit available thermodynamic disequilibria? The answer is an only slightly qualified no. It appears that wherever the thermodynamic minimum for life is met on Earth and water is found, life is found. Furthermore, the life that is found appears to be descendant from an ancestral life form that also served as the ancestor of humankind (perhaps we would not necessarily have recognized it if its ancestry were otherwise) and exploits fundamentally human-like biochemistry.
The committee then reviewed evidence of abiotic processes that manipulate organic material in a planetary environment. It asked whether the molecules that we see in contemporary terran life might be understood as the inevitable consequences of abiotic reactivity. Although signatures of such predecessor reactivity can be adumbrated within contemporary biochemistry, they are generally faint.14 Some 4 billion years of biological evolution have attached a strong Darwinian signature to whatever went before; hypotheses regarding evidence of our inanimate ancestry within modern biostructures are the subject of intense dispute.
If life originated first on Earth, it was long ago when conditions on the surface of this planet were very different from what they are today. We do not know what those conditions were, and we may never know. Furthermore, the organisms around today are all highly evolved descendants of the first life forms and probably contributed long ago to the demise of their less fit, more primitive competitors. The historical slate has been wiped clean both geologically and biologically. Finally, because life forms replicate, singular events can have enormous impacts on future developments. Life does not have to be a probable outcome of spontaneous physicochemical processes, although it may well be. Arguments based on probability are not as powerful in this sphere as they usually are in the physical sciences.
The committee surveyed the inventory of environments in the solar system and asked which non-Earth ones might be suited to life of the terran type. Such locales are few, unless there are laws not now understood that could govern the early stages of the self-organization of biochemical structures and processes that could lead inevitably to evolving life forms.15 Subsurface Mars and the putative sub-ice oceans of the Galilean satellites are the only locales in the solar system (other than Earth itself) that are clearly compatible with terran biochemistry.
The committee’s survey made clear, however, that most locales in the solar system are at thermodynamic disequilibrium—an absolute requirement for chemical life. Furthermore, many locales that have thermodynamic disequilibrium also have solvents in liquid form and environments where the covalent bonds between carbon and other lighter elements are stable. Those are weaker requirements for life, but the three together would appear, perhaps simplistically, to be sufficient for life. The committee asked whether it could conceive of biochemistry adapted to those exotic environments, much as human-like biochemistry is adapted to terran environments. Few detailed hypotheses are available; the committee reviewed what is known, or might be speculated, and considered research directions that might expand or constrain understanding about the possibility of life in such exotic environments.