"But Can We Eat It?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 04 April 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Tyler Fox, one of COSI's Floor Faculty Managers, was working in the Planetarium the other day and encountered a difficult question. What if someday we discover alien life - say, in the subsurface oceans of Europa or living on a distant exoplanet around another star - and it's as complex as life here on Earth. Not just single-celled critters that we only get to gawk at through a microscope, but large organisms with thriving ecosystems.

Of course we would first celebrate a major triumph of scientific inquiry and human philosophy, answering one of the most important questions of our species: "Are we alone?"

But Tyler's gang didn't care about that question. They cared about the second most important question of our species: "Could we eat it?"

That's actually a pretty challenging question. On one hand, complex molecules like sugars and amino acids are built from (literally) universal ingredients. We've even detected glycine, the simplest amino acid, on comets and identified glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar, in interstellar nebulae. So presumably alien life would be built from the same basic blocks as their Earth-born cousins, rendering them eatable.

But digestible is another matter. There are many, many things just on the Earth that are either too tough, too poisonous, or too poor in nutrients to eat. Humans are omnivorous, but not that omnivorous. There are many steps to go from "contains nutrients" to "we can acquire those nutrients" to "we can enjoy doing so."

Could we eat alien life? I guess there's only one way to find out.

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter is COSI's Chief Scientist. He is an astrophysicist and offers a wealth of knowledge about our universe. In addition to his COSI position, Paul Sutter is a Cosmological Researcher and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP).