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Could phosphorus be the reason for our loneliness in the universe?

The Fermi Paradox is a famous conundrum posed by Enrico Fermi which asks why we have yet to discover intelligent life in a universe which, on the balance of probability, should have enough planets where life can evolve. Many sci-fi-esque solutions have been proposed, including that one super advanced civilisation destroys every other civilisation that it detects, like the aliens in Independence Day and that advanced civilisations will create a Matrix-like computer megastructure to simulate a universe to live in. Recent research from Cardiff University may have another answer to this question – a scarcity of phosphate in the universe.

Though phosphorus doesn’t get the credit that more famous cousins of the periodic table like carbon do, it is one of the six elements that life as we know it depends on. Not only is phosphate  – the naturally occurring form of the element phosphorus  – a key component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the ‘currency of biological energy’ which stores, and transfers energy needed to power everything in the body, it’s also the backbone of DNA and RNA. Dr Jane Greaves said that “astronomers have just started to pay attention to the cosmic origins of phosphorus and found quite a few surprises” after conducting research into the Crab Nebula. Phosphorous is created in supernovas – the gravitational collapse and explosion of certain types of large stars at the end of their life cycle

The team used the William Herschel Telescope built on La Palma, the Canary Islands, to record phosphorous and iron levels and compare these to previous research on phosphorous levels in another supernova called Cassiopeia A. Initial results show that the Crab Nebula ejected much less phosphorous than in Cassiopeia A. This indicates that there’s a significant difference in the amount of phosphorous ejected from different supernovas, which Dr Phil Cigan attributes to the Cassiopeia A supernova resulting “from the explosion of a rare super-massive star”.

Not only is phosphate a key component of ATP, the ‘currency of biological energy’… it’s also the backbone of DNA and RNA

The Earth, therefore, may have only been able to play host to the greatest show on Earth and develop life due to it being near a supernova which ejected lots of phosphorous. Dr Greaves suggests if phosphorous is provided by supernovas, then planets will be reliant on a neighbouring supernova to eject meteorites with phosphorus-bearing minerals that hit the planet. “In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry, on another world otherwise similar to our own,” says Dr Greaves. As these results suggest more common supernovas seem to provide less phosphorous, this doesn’t bode well in our quest to find intelligent life.

The team have applied for more time on the telescope to record other supernova remnants and see whether phosphorous is rarer than originally believed. If further research corroborates the preliminary results, then it puts a major dent into our hopes of finding compatriots in the universe.

If phosphorous is provided by supernovas, then planets will be reliant on a neighbouring supernova to eject meteorites with phosphorus-bearing minerals that hit the planet

Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (METI) refers to an approach from which sends out interstellar messages to discover and communicate with other intelligent life. However, this dearth of life to communicate with might be a blessing in disguise as many scenarios in the Fermi Paradox don’t end well for humans. Not only could alien civilisations actively seek to destroy us, but they could also be incapable of communication with us and extract resources from our planet just as we’re currently killing animals via deforestation. Given that past messages have included pictures of humans and information about our planet and species, sending these messages could very well be the extra-terrestrial equivalent of chickens advertising the henhouse to foxes.

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