I have created a life form that is based on the element boron. As a substitute for DNA it instead uses Diborane as a building block. I've come across a problem however that I can't seem to get around. This problem is what would these Boron cells use to obtain energy?

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The atmosphere of the planet this creature lives in is heavily reducing. This means most of the oxidizing agents are locked up in bonds with other elements. This creature mainly breathes methane to power chemical reactions in a process of cellular respiration that looks like this.

4CONHNH2NOHN2 + 22CH4 = 20NH3 + 11C2H4 + 4CO2

Methane is used to break down a chemical similar to carbohydrazide and is turned into ammonia, ethylene and carbon dioxide.

In carbon based biochemistry, the energy that allows this process to happen comes from ATP which is broken down in the process of hydrolysis, giving the cell energy. However, ATP is mostly carbon and oxygen based, which this boron based life form doesn't have a lot of. Knowing this, what could these boron based creatures use as an alternative to ATP?

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    $\begingroup$ Does your life form happen to have access to any elements other than the ones you mentioned? $\endgroup$
    – Luxa
    Jan 4, 2019 at 1:47
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it has most of the elements that we have on earth. The only elements that are not present in abundance is common oxidizing elements. Such as oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine. All of these elements are mostly bonded to other elements. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ Life on this planet will be most extraordinary. Any water or oxygen will have to be kept well away from the diborane as will ammonia and ethylene as they also react with it. carbohydrazide may also explode if heated. Good luck. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Dec 24, 2019 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


The important part of ATP for energy storage isn't the carbon-based part: it's the phosphate chain. The adenosine part is essentially a nucleobase (adenine) bonded to a sugar--i.e., a fragment of an RNA molecule. That's a pretty suspicious coincidence, no? It seems likely that ATP derives from the ancient use of RNA as a catalyst, analogous to proteins, in addition to an information carrier.

So, what would be the analogous, ubiquitous structural base molecule in your boron biochemistry? I'd pick either a nucleobase or an amino-acid-equivalent (or something which can be both, like adenosine), and just stick a phosphate chain on it.

  • $\begingroup$ In a reducing environment, oxidized phosphorus might not be as stable. But OP said he is using diborane as the building block, so some sort of polysubstituted diborane is the ATP equivalent makes sense. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 4, 2019 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk The Earth's atmosphere was reducing at the time ATP evolved, so that doesn't seem like a major barrier to me. $\endgroup$ Jan 4, 2019 at 16:42

2 carbon molecules.

@Logan R. Kearsley's idea of taking a page from your own fictional biochemistry makes sense. Here is another idea that will make sense to readers with only high school chemistry.

carbons https://brilliant.org/wiki/common-types-of-organic-reactions/

The idea with ATP is that it takes energy to add that phosphorus and it will yield energy when you release it: energy currency.

Carbon-carbon bonds are the same way. It takes energy to expel that hydrogen and bond carbon to carbon. There is more energy in acetylene than in ethane, which is why we use acetylene for welding and ethane / methane for gas grills. On removing hydrogen, energy is stored. On adding hydrogen back to the carbon, energy is released.


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