Scientist Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales, recently realized that not many others in her field have examined the presence of phosphorus throughout the universe. Phosphorus is an element that stores energy and can be found in DNA. Simply put, life is not possible without it. Looking at the distribution (or lack thereof) of phosphorus in the universe could suggest the possibility — however small — of life.
According to NASA, the 11th most common element on the planet (and one of only six chemical elements on which Earth organisms depend) “helps form the backbone of the long chains of nucleotides that create RNA and DNA; it is part of the phospholipids in cell membranes; and is a building block of the coenzyme used as an energy carrier in cells, adenosine triphosphate (ATP).”
Of course, life depends on other elements, too. Carbon, for example, is one of the elements scientists look to when searching for evidence of life. And of course, water is the big one. Not only does a family of four use around 400 gallons of water per day here on Earth, but it’s also the main component of our beings. But while H2O and C tend to get a lot of attention, phosphorus might be easier to spot and could indicate life just as well. That is if scientists start examining its presence.
After coming up empty in her search of papers on the topic, Greaves decided to conduct the project herself. She studied two supernova remnants using a telescope based in the Canary Islands to assess the distribution of phosphorus in the remains of the dying stars — which eventually will become part of new planets. Greaves and her colleague were surprised to find that the two supernova remnants have drastically different levels of phosphorus. That, they say, suggests that phosphorus is not distributed evenly throughout the universe, meaning that life may not exist in other parts of the sky.
The results, however, are only preliminary and do not definitively conclude that life does not exist beyond our home planet. Even if the amount of phosphorus found in the universe is limited, there could still be alien life to be found. As astronomer Avi Loeb of Harvard University pointed out to Newsweek: “It’s still possible there would be pockets [of life].”
One reason for that is because another essential element could help to support life. Molybdenum is used in countless applications and is often sought after due to its high melting point — 4,748 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2,620, if you insist on subtracting 32 and dividing by 1.8 to convert to Celsius). It’s also vital for life and can extract nitrogen from the environment before converting it into something usable for lifeforms.
And even if there is phosphorus present, says Greaves, that doesn’t mean life therefore exists. Until the element is incorporated into a mineral, it can’t support life. Still, Greaves and her colleague Phil Cigan will soon present their research at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool. The findings may be just the beginning, and until they’re explored further, many will still contend that “the truth is out there.”