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High pH, ammonia toxicity, and the search for life on the Jovian planets


The Jovian planets have environments apparently suitable for the evolution of life, but, nevertheless, present severe challenges to organisms. One such challenge arises from the presence of ammonia. Ammonia is an efficient biocide, its effect being dependent on pH as well as on concentration. The effects of pH and ammonia concentration were studied separately, where possible, on a variety of organisms, including some isolated from natural environments of high pH and/or ammonia concentration.

Escherichia coli andBacillus subtilis are both extremely sensitive to ammonia. An aerobic organism (growth up to pH 11.4) from an alkaline spring is more resistant, but exhibits a toxic response to ammonia at a pH much lower than its maximum for growth. The greatest ammonia resistance has been found in an unidentified organism growing at near neutral pH. Even in this case, however, survival at ammonia concentrations reasonably expected on the Jovian planets is measured in hours. This is, nevertheless, two to three orders of magnitude longer than forE. coli.

Our data support the tentative conclusion that contamination of the Jovian planets with terrestrial organisms that can grow is unlikely. However, the range of toxic response noted, coupled with the observation that terrestrial life has not been exposed to high ammonia concentrations for millions of years, suggests that adaptation to greater ammonia tolerance may be possible.

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Deal, P.H., Souza, K.A. & Mack, H.M. High pH, ammonia toxicity, and the search for life on the Jovian planets. Origins Life Evol Biosphere 6, 561–573 (1975). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00928904

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  • Ammonia Concentration
  • Biocide
  • High Ammonia
  • Toxic Response
  • Tentative Conclusion