In an alien atmosphere, where methane is the main gas instead of oxygen and ammonia is the main solvent instead of water. Similar to how photosynthesis on earth plants work, by taking in carbon dioxide and water to create glucose (source of food) and oxygen (waste product). What gas would plants on this planet take in alongside ammonia that would result in the release of methane as a waste product as well as their source of food.

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For visual perspective- NH3 + ____ + energy = ____ + CH4 Atmospheric composition if needed: Nitrogen- 93% Methane- 6% Other trace gases- 1%

I hope this is more clear

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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean with "look like"? Could you e.g. tell me what our photosynthesis looks like to you? It is a very complex issue, i can come up with many aspects one could look at. This makes this question currently too broad $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 Maybe he should change it to "how would photosynthesis work?"? At least, that's how I interpreted it. $\endgroup$
    – SealBoi
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @SealBoi Even in that case, well, I wouldn't write an answer just because I have no idea what the OP expects. Biochemistry is like the most insanely complicated thing on Earth. Ideally the question you asked is answered in several papers after a significant number of years of research $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 Yes, he/she definitely needs to pad the question out a bit more, for clarity. $\endgroup$
    – SealBoi
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ You've said that the planet has ammonia, but there's none in the atmospheric breakdown so the planet has to be averaging less than 240K (-34°C) I'm not sure anything we'd recognise as alive exists under those conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 18:01

5 Answers 5


What plants do on Earth is oxidize (remove hydrogen from) water, and use that hydrogen to reduce carbon dioxide into sugars. That process takes energy. An analog with ammonia and methane would be the following:

2NH3 + C2H4 + Energy -> N2H4 + 2CH4

What is happening is that the ammonia is being oxidized and its hydrogens being transferred to the ethylene, to form Hydrazine and Methane. According to Wolfram Alpha, this requires 83.2 kj/mol, and therefore would occur in a plant. The reverse reaction would release energy, with Hydrazine being used as food.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the use of hydrazine for energy. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ It should also make oxygen leaks from spacesuits quite interesting, if the atmosphere is basically rocket fuel and natural gas. $\endgroup$
    – Totillity
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ The purpose of photosynthesis is to produce complex organic compounds (most notably sugars, in Earth plants, but also indirectly everything else that the plant needs to survive and grow). Your reaction is not very useful in that respect. In fact, it would be more useful to run it in reverse, since ethylene is a perfectly good starting point for all kinds of useful chemistry, whereas methane is rather useless unless you first dump the extra hydrogens somewhere. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2018 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ @IlmariKaronen Hydrazine can also be used as a precursor chemical (though Ethylene is more useful). More likely is that the Hydrazine will be made on and bound to some protein like hemoglobin. That enables easy transport and use. $\endgroup$
    – Totillity
    Commented Aug 9, 2018 at 21:21

I'm not a biochemist. Biochemistry is super-duper complicated. The following is essentially wild speculation, but hopefully it can help guide your thinking.

The overall equation for photosynthesis on earth is:

$$6 CO_2 + 6 H_2O + \gamma \rightarrow C_6H_{12}O_6 + 6O_2$$

Here are the important things to note about this process, from the perspective of changing it. These features need to be present to allow for anything like the photosynthesis we see on modern earth:

  1. The reaction requires energy to proceed (is endothermic), rather than releasing energy when it proceeds
  2. The solid output of the reaction (glucose) is a store of energy that is stable enough not to spontaneously decompose
    1. (A) Glucose is a moderately complicated molecule. This allows the biochemical system to manipulate it with a good degree of specificity using targeted proteins, and minimizes the chances that it will cause unwanted side reactions.
  3. The byproduct of the reaction is a gas, which can easily escape the plant. Liquids are OK too, but not solids (which are difficult to transport out of the plant)

You ask about instead using the reaction scheme:

$$nNH_3 + mX + \gamma \rightarrow iY + jCH_4$$

You also posit that this ammonia exists in a liquid state (analogous to water). This is your first problem: ammonia boils at -33$^{\circ}$C. This is a problem because at this temperature, about 50$^{\circ}$C colder than on earth, and as a rule of thumb every 10$^{\circ}$C difference results in a factor of 2 change in chemical reaction rates. That means that reactions on this planet will take place about 32x slower than on earth, which makes it unlikely that an endothermic reaction like this could take place.

You have a few ways around this. Perhaps your biochemistry includes a ubiquitous reaction that is quite exothermic, which is used to locally heat life enough for reactions to happen at a reasonable pace. Perhaps life only grow around geothermal hot-spots, where the temperature is locally higher and the ammonia is gaseous. Or perhaps the planet has a similar temperature to that of earth, but an atmospheric pressure about 10x higher, allowing liquid ammonia at room temperature (this likely creates its own set of problems).

Anyway, passing that on, let's see if we can come up with a moderately stable, moderately complex nitrogen compound to replace sugar. That will guide the rest of the reaction. I think an amino acid is probably a decent choice. I'll use glycine, because it's simple and this is already hard enough as-is:


Now, we have the reaction scheme

$$nNH_3 + mX + \gamma \rightarrow NH_2CH_2COOH + jCH_4$$

We can (stoichiometrically) satisfy this reaction using propinoic acid

$$NH_3 + CH_3CH_2COOH \rightarrow NH_2CH_2COOH + CH_4$$

Based on a quick look at the standard enthalpies of formation, this reaction should be endothermic*. Check. Glycine is a relatively stable solid (we produce it all the time in our bodies) that is moderately complex (complex enough to be used to build proteins at least). Check. We're consuming ammonia and producing methane, as you asked. Check.

So this is my submission for your photosynthesis. The next step is to come up with whatever kind of crazy pathway this reaction schema could possibly use. However that sort of thing is way over my head (even photosynthesis on earth is really very complicated, involving lots of electron transfer and stuff), so this is where I'll leave you.

Happy worldbuilding!

$*$ The enthalpies of formation I found are as follows (rounded quite a bit):

  • Ammonia, -45 kJ/mol
  • Propinoic acid, -510 kJ/mol
  • Methane, -75 kJ/mol
  • Glycine, 1430 kJ/mol

Thus the overall reaction has (45 + 510) < (1430 - 75) which implies it will not be spontaneous, with a net endotherm of about 800 kJ/mol. I believe this is a bit under half the endotherm of photosynthesis on Earth.

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    $\begingroup$ The real question is where the heck all that propinoic acid is coming from. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2018 at 5:14
  • $\begingroup$ @IlmariKaronen Yeah, it would need to be modestly common I think (at least a few hundredths of a percent in the ammonia, like CO2 in the atmosphere). Come to think of it I don't know if pure liquid ammonia will dissolve propanoic acid... A potential complication. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2018 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @myself Don't write comments right after waking up. Of course ammonia and propinoic acid will react to form ammonium propinoate salt. The question then becomes whether the propinoate ions are soluble in ammonia or if it will all end up precipitating as a solid. If the latter, we'll need to find a different set of chemicals, because plants are going to have a hard time taking in an insoluble solid. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2018 at 19:34

You only have one option: hydrogen. And that would work fine. Your photosynthesis is the reverse of photosynthesis in an oxidizing environment.

Hydrogen dissolves in ammonia. Hydrogen gas would be available in your reducing atmosphere, floating around in equilibrium with the ammonia.

Your heterotrophic creatures "eat" long chain alkanes by maximally reducing them to methane with the hydrogen - just as in our oxidizing environment we eat long chain carbohydrates by maximally oxidizing them to CO2 with oxygen.

Your autotrophic photosynthesizers produce their alkane food by stripping hydrogen from CH4 and forming long chain alkanes. CH4 + energy -> H2 + Cx H2x+2.
Just as earth plants strip oxygen from CO2 to produce sugar.

  • $\begingroup$ A cool idea! The main concern I would have with hydrogen gas is regarding accessibility due to its tiny mass. What if all the hydrogen gas would just float up above the methane and nitrogen gas, and be difficult for organisms to get? (Come to think of it, that might already be a concern for methane vs. nitrogen...) $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Qami: A bigger problem is that, at least based on what we know of planet formation, small (e.g. Earth-sized) planets tend to lose any free hydrogen to space rather quickly on astronomical timescales, whereas planets big enough to retain hydrogen tend to collect so much of it from the protoplanetary disc (while growing even bigger in the process) that they become gas giants. That said, an intermediate-size "ice giant" planet, like Uranus and Neptune in our solar system, could still have enough hydrogen to make this work without drowning in it. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2018 at 5:11
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    $\begingroup$ ...still, this is the only answer so far that IMO really presents a plausible basis for biochemistry. +1 for that. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2018 at 5:18

Today I learned that photosynthesis must result in a complex compound. Well, I'm not a biochemistry expert, so learning is to be expected.

Therefore, there are 3 constraints on the photosynthesis reaction. 1. Results in a complex molecule. 2. Uses a minimum of oxygen, since the only accessible oxygen is in water ice, which is hard, relatively, to get 3. Uses Nitrogen to store energy.

I've come up with the following equation:

8NH3 + 3C2H4 + 2CO2 -> CONHNH2NOHN2 + 6CH4

As you can see, it uses a minimum of oxygen, results in a moderately complex compound, and uses plenty of Nitrogen.

Ethylene must be on the reactants side, otherwise there would be no place to dump the unusable excess hydrogen. French hydrogen would escape the atmosphere and therefore make this world too open of a system.

Additionally, like glucose, CO2N4H6 (the food product), can bind with itself to form chains. This is extremely useful as both an energy store and structural material.

Using average bond energies, this reaction needs 1352 kj/mol to proceed, comparable to Earth's photosynthesis which needs 2801 kj/mol to proceed.

But wait! That's not all! The compound here, whose name I do not know, has a better energy density than glucose. Per gram if glucose made, it yields 11.7 kj. However, this chemical, CO2N4H6, yields 12.7 kj per gram.

Note: The resulting compound is like Carbohydrazide except that the hydrogen on one of the Nitrogen bonded to the carbon is replace with a hydroxide group.

Hope this is a better answer.

Thanks to Ilmari Karonen for his comments on making this realistic.


Cyanide world.

Your other question Appearance of an Ammonia World's Atmosphere got me thinking more about this.

Here is my new idea for the cycle.

  1. Photosynthesis: energy + N2 + CH4 -> HCN + NH3. Energy is stored in the CN triple bond.

  2. Heterotrophs: NH3 + CN -> CH4 + N2

I admit I am struggling mightily with the enthalpy of the heterotroph part. I would post to the chemistry stack but I am sure they will feel it is below them. Any help with that most welcome.

Then the cellulose / sugar equivalent is nitrile rubber!


nitrile rubber

A good polymer for a low oxygen world, and a good sugar equivalent.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting, but minor note, the Appearance of an Ammonia World's Atmosphere question is mine, but this one is not. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ That's definitely interesting, I'll have to look into nitrile rubber as a potential idea $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ I did some digging yesterday. Using cyanide is interesting, but I got to thinking about larger molecules. I found several amines which net much more enthalpy than cyanide, which leads me to think there are bound to be other molecules I didn't find that could make this basic idea work. I also found oxygen-containing nitriles/amines stuff that appear to work if the plants also take in CO in addition to N2+CH4, even better than N2+CH4 ones alone. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ It would be more efficient if they contained CO yes but the creatures on this planet are boron based. Any oxidizers would form strong bonds with boron and the creatures wouldn't be able to break them easily. The N2+CH4 alone will have to suffice. Thanks for you contribution though, nitrile rubbers have a lot more information online about them compared to the other answers in these thread Another thing of note is that hydrogen cyanide would be plentiful in the oceans due to the reaction between ammonia and methane $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 17, 2021 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @SamD.Jones , Wither Fang - can either of you calculate the enthalpies of the proposed reactions? Google failed me and my pchem is just too weak. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 17:14

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