As I continue to research science for my science fiction, I have found biochemistry is my worst subject. I can’t believe aliens would work the same way we do, breathing oxygen, depending on carbon-based molecules, and so forth. But since this is the only kind of life we know about, no one can really say what is or is not possible, and I don’t have nearly enough knowledge or experience to guess what aliens could use as substitutes.
Personally, I believe life will evolve anywhere it can using whatever resources nature gives it. For example, we all know boiling water kills most bacteria, but there is a species called Methanococcus jannaschii (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either) which thrives in temperatures near 100 degrees Celsius. Stranger still, they don’t need oxygen to survive but rely on hydrogen and carbon dioxide and produce methane as a waste product.
In 1996 scientists reclassified M. jannaschii as an Archae, part of a whole new kingdom of life, because of its radically different genetic structure. Apparently these things are left over from the Archean Era, when life on Earth was just beginning and the atmosphere had not yet filled with oxygen.
Although I don’t have the details worked out for any new, alien biologies, my research on M. jannaschii gives me a little more confidence when taking oxygen away from an extra-terrestrial character. An article in January’s Scientific American suggests that oxygen might not be as abundant on other planets as it is on Earth, but at least I know for a fact there is one life form that wouldn’t care.
Human explorers and diplomats of the future: remember to bring your breathing masks.
Appenzeller, Tim. “Archae Tells All: Genetic testing reveals our long-lost cousins thriving in some of the most extreme environments on Earth.” Discover Magazine January 1997. <http://discovermagazine.com/1997/jan/archaetellsall1014>
“Methanogens.” Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia Eighth Edition. Ed. Douglas M. Considine. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995. Page 2036.
Musser, George. “A Large Lump of Coal: Other Earths may be made of graphite and diamond.” Scientific American January 2010. Page 26.
Wade, Nicholas. “Deep Sea Yields Clue to Life’s Origin.” New York Times August 23, 1996. <http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/23/us/deep-sea-yields-a-clue-to-life-s-origin.html?pagewanted=1>