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Ingredients for Life: Water

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 12.17.05
  • NOVA

Earth provides a comfortable and temperate environment for a wide variety of living organisms. However, in the past few decades, scientists have discovered unusual life forms thriving in areas where the majority of living things on Earth could never survive, such as by deep sea vents or in dry deserts. This video segment, adapted from NOVA, explores extreme forms of life on Earth, the importance of liquid water, and the possibilities of life elsewhere in the solar system.

NOVA Ingredients for Life: Water
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 4m 44s
  • Size: 14.1 MB
  • Level: Grades 3-12

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Source: Origins, A NOVA Presentation: "Where are the Aliens?"

This resource was adapted from Origins, A NOVA Presentation: "Back to the Beginning."


Since the 1970s, a number of unusual organisms have been discovered in environments that are hostile to other living things. These organisms, called extremophiles because of their ability to survive at the extremes of typically hospitable conditions, thrive where other life would perish. For example, microbial life has been found deep underground in tiny spaces within rocks, in the frozen environment of Antarctica, in the searing hot waters of deep sea vents and hot springs, and in the harsh environments of dry deserts. Life has also been found in extreme conditions of high radiation, pressure, acidity, alkalinity, or salinity. With the discovery of such organisms, some scientists have broadened their definition of what a habitable environment might be to include a greater range of potential environments for extraterrestrial life.

All life has three main requirements for existence: elements, a source of energy, and a medium that allows for chemical reactions to occur. The first two requirements are readily available throughout the universe. The third requirement causes more controversy. On Earth, liquid water is that essential medium, but is it the only solvent that could sustain life?

Liquid ammonia could possibly fulfill the role of water. In our solar system, liquid ammonia is common, and it is similar to water as a solvent. However, it would be difficult for life to survive in an ammonia environment because the temperature range in which it exists as a liquid, -78°C to -33°C (-108°F to -27°F), is very small and extremely cold. At such low temperatures, chemical reactions happen incredibly slowly, which makes it unlikely that life could arise. Based on our experience on Earth, water appears to be a crucial ingredient for life.

Nevertheless, The National Academy of Sciences has organized a group of scientists to address the limits of organic life of planetary systems. Rather than restrict the search for life to carbon and water-based organisms, the committee is evaluating the possibilities for "weird life." When stretched outside the rules of standard biology, the search for extraterrestrial life opens up even more.

To learn more about how life might have originated on Earth, check out Deep-Sea Vents and Life's Origins, Life Before Oxygen, and Caves: Extreme Conditions for Life.

To learn more about carbon-based life, check out Ingredients for Life: Carbon.

To learn more about the importance of water, check out Life's Little Essential: Liquid Water.

Questions for Discussion

    • Why is water considered an essential ingredient for life?
    • Why are scientists rethinking where life might be found?
    • Why we are searching for evidence of past life on Mars?
    • Might Jupiter's moon Europa contain water beneath the vast ice sheet that covers it? Why or why not?
    • What types of life might be present on other planets in other solar systems? What conditions would need to be met for them to occur?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

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