Home Page Science Frontiers

No. 75: May-Jun 1991

Issue Contents

Other pages











The first food: tholin

"You've just had a hard day evolving into the first life-form on your primitive planet, and you're ready to chow down. Problem: What can you eat? A quick survey of the food chain isn't promising; you're it. Do you simply starve to death, ending your world's brief experiment with life? Not if a rust-colored substance called tholin is within reach. Tholin may have served as breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the first life on Earth."

The tholins are hard, red-brownish substances made of complex organic compounds. They do not exist naturally on earth, because our present oxidizing atmosphere blocks their synthesis. However, tholins can be made in the lab by subjecting mixtures of methane, ammonia, and water vapor to simulated lightning discharges. Conditions like this probably exist many places in the universe. In fact, the icy moons of the outer solarsystem planets appear ideal places for tholin manufacturing.

What would eat such stuff? Lab tests show that many kinds of bacteria love it and thrive on it. (Chaikin, Andrew; "First Foods," Discover, p. 18, February 1991.)

Comment. A purposeless universe that just happens to create a substance for primitive life? Strange that things should be this way!

From Science Frontiers #75, MAY-JUN 1991. � 1991-2000 William R. Corliss