Phosphorus, an essential ingredient for life as we know it, has been detected for the first time in water samples that can be traced back to Enceladus, an ice-covered moon of Saturn.
The discovery, reported today in the journal Nature, lends further support to suggestions that life could lurk within Enceladus’ ice-covered oceans — and perhaps in similar environments elsewhere in the solar system.
Phosphorus-containing compounds, known as phosphates, provide the molecular backbone for DNA and RNA molecules. Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, serves as the source of energy for living cells. This research marks the first time that phosphates have been traced to an extraterrestrial ocean. The Nature paper suggests that phosphate levels in Enceladus’ hidden seas could be hundreds or even thousands of times higher than what exists in Earth’s oceans.
“By determining such high phosphate concentrations readily available in Enceladus’ ocean, we have now satisfied what is generally considered one of the strictest requirements in establishing whether celestial bodies are habitable,” study co-author Fabian Klenner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, said in a news release.