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Titan discovery gets us closer to methane-based alien life

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli

A new paper published today on “Science Advances” provides the first indisputable evidence of the presence of a molecule – acrylonitrile –  on Titan which Cornell University researchers theorized could be key to life on the methane-based, oxygen-free moon of Saturn.


Paulette Clancy

Paulette Clancy

Samuel W. and M. Diane Bodman Professor in Chemical Engineering

Chemical and biological engineer Paulette Clancy is a member of a Cornell team that in 2015 modeled the membrane now found on Titan. The team says the discovery gets us closer to finding life in a truly alien environment.

Clancy says: 

“This paper is an exciting validation of the molecular simulation predictions in the Stevenson et al. paper in 2015. It shows the power of molecular simulation to ‘shine a flashlight’ onto the most promising candidates for prebiotic life in conditions that are difficult to emulate in the lab.

“This confirmation suggests that future collaborations between computational approaches and mining of the experimental data can lead to breakthroughs in understanding worlds alien to our own.”

Jonathan Lunine

Jonathan Lunine

David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences

Astronomer Jonathan Lunine is a member of a Cornell team that in 2015 modeled the membrane now found on Titan. The team says the discovery gets us closer to finding life in a truly alien environment.

Lunine says: 

“Researchers definitively discovered the molecule, vinyl cyanide (a.k.a. acrylonitrile), that is our best candidate for a ‘protocell’ that might be stable and flexible in liquid methane.

“This is a step forward in understanding whether Titan’s methane seas might host an exotic form of life.

“Saturn’s moon, Enceladus is the place to search for life like us, life that depends on –  and exists in – liquid water. Titan, on the other hand, is the place to go to seek the outer limits of life – can some exotic type of life begin and evolve in a truly alien environment, that of liquid methane?”


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