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A colony ship headed for its new home countless light-years from Earth suffers an unfortunate malfunction on the final part of its descent phase and crashes onto the planet. Thankfully, the ship crashes near its intended landing zone which is ideal in terms of fresh water/arable land. The ship impacts, knocking out almost all of the most advanced equipment for good, reducing the colonists to a close to modern (2019) level of technology, but with very limited initial availability. Very few of the population actually died as a result of the crash, but are now scattered across the surrounding countryside along the flight path (approx 100 miles) due to being evacuated via escape pod just in time, with the crew being the worst off, having sacrificed many of their lives to save the ship.

As the colonists emerge, they discover that their intel was completely accurate: Prior scans before the journey began indicated the planet is for all intents and purposes considered to be an ideal world, just like Earth, but with different flora/fauna, etc. However, the scans missed a minor detail. Everything is just a little hot. Spicy hot.

All types of plants and creatures seem to contain some heat, with the lowest being in the hundreds of thousands of Scoville units, with the most potent sources in the tens of millions or more (Feel free to adjust this range if necessary). A certain concentration even permeates the very air they breathe. The colonists are simply a random sampling of a normal population. This isn't the first colonization mankind has embarked on, and anyone can sign up at this point. Besides, this world was "supposed to be a cakewalk" provided the ship had landed intact. Unfortunately for them, outside help is likely to be at best, decades away if it comes at all.

So the question is, can the colony, take the heat?

And what would their society/culture look like when the rest of humanity comes to check up on them?

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    $\begingroup$ How much capacity would the colonists have to create environments sealed off from the planet's environment? It will make a big difference to whether or not any colonists survive, and what the practical elements of the society any survivors might build, if they have to deal with the capsaicin-laden environment all the time versus infrequently and briefly. $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case Dec 10 '19 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ Haha, what a twist! It's original :) $\endgroup$ – Phoenix Dec 10 '19 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ hurry and finish it! I want to read it already. $\endgroup$ – Michael Mano Dec 11 '19 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ I love that this is currently the #1 question on the Hot tab. $\endgroup$ – GrandmasterB Dec 11 '19 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ I have nothing to contribute except that this is a brilliant idea :) $\endgroup$ – Fels Dec 11 '19 at 13:40

11 Answers 11

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The colonists will rapidly be desensitized to capsaicin.

This assumes that the "spicy hot" on this world is capsaicin (the active molecule in hot peppers) or something that works similarly. There are other spices perceived by us as "hot" including those in horseradish, black pepper etc. Each has a different mechanism.

As regards capsaicin: this molecule initially stimulates and then exhausts pain nerves.

Capsaicin: Physicochemical properties, cutaneous reactions and potential applications in painful and inflammatory conditions

Capsaicin and its related vanilloids have a complex action on primary sensory neurons with major role in physiology of pain by detection of high threshold to physical and noxious chemical stimuli, as the first step in producing the pain session (1). Initially, capsaicin induces their activation, characterized by a local burning and stinging sensation, possibly associated with hyperalgesia and allodynia after exposure to heat and mechanical stimuli... In case of subsequent or prolonged applications of capsaicin, initial excitation is followed by loss of responsiveness, known as desensitization of nociceptive neurons, which stands at the base of analgesic/anti-nociceptive effect of topical application of capsaicin. Low-concentration topical creams, gels, lotions... with capsaicin were developed to ‘defunctionalize’ cutaneous nociceptors and treat painful conditions. Moreover, capsaicin further depletes the neuropeptides from the sensory nerve endings and reduces the initial inflammatory response. Capsaicin can also induce a progressive neurotoxic degeneration of cutaneous nerves when used in high concentrations or for a long period of time...

Given its analgesic and anti-nociceptive effect, capsaicin has been used in the management of neuropathic discomfort, post-herpetic neuralgia, neuropathy of patients with diabetes and/or HIV,...

Like a person using capsaicin lotion to treat pain, the colonists will initially be uncomfortable (and cough) but then the responsible nerves will rapidly be exhausted and desensitized and the colonists will no longer be uncomfortable. They might actually be relatively numb. That "neurotoxic degeneration of cutaneous nerves" sounds ominous - it is not good to be numb. That will have to do with the concentrations involved.

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    $\begingroup$ That sounds really, really bad. Apparently the LD50 works out to be something like 500 Ghost Peppers to kill a person. I'm not sure even in this environment you would reach that, but I can't imagine anything approaching that is remotely good for you. $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 10 '19 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ Most of them will become desensitized. The people with sensory processing disorders won't. (As someone with a sensory processing disorder, I know this both from reading and experience.) So I guess we have to hope all the people with sensory processing disorders stayed on Earth. $\endgroup$ – Annapox Dec 11 '19 at 3:13
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    $\begingroup$ There are people who completely lack the capsaicin receptors. Those would definately be at an advantage on that world. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Dec 11 '19 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ This is true only if they survive the initial shock - inhaling what is effectively extra-intense pepper spray will have several dangerous effects besides just being unpleasant - your unfortunate colonists will likely all experience symptoms similar to an asthma attack the first time the step out in the air. Capsaicin can cause inflammation and production of mucus, and when inhaled at such potent levels could cause the airways the swell shut and the lungs to fill with fluid... $\endgroup$ – bendl Dec 12 '19 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ ...If you can manage to slowly ramp up the capsaicin levels, this could be avoided, but I wouldn't give anyone who just walks outside a great chance of survival... many of your colonists will die shortly after landing. $\endgroup$ – bendl Dec 12 '19 at 13:43
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Other answers have addressed the serious problems with living in pepper spray, so let's assume you've dealt with that and move on to the food issue:

Chickens.

Okay, presumably you've brought some sort of gene stock for farming because you're not an absolute idiot. Let's assume that enough of it survived to get started. I've never heard of any plants being negatively affected by capsaicin, so you're probably good there. But what if you want some meat in your diet? Livestock requires a lot of space even if you have the infrastructure for factory farming, which you don't.

Which brings us to chickens. Capsaicin affects mammals, but not birds. (This is not a coincidence--chilies evolved capsaicin to discourage mammals that would chew up their seeds in preference for birds that would swallow them whole and poop them out far and wide.) So chickens, geese, turkeys, ostriches, and any other food birds you may have will be able to live outside with no significant difficulty, and will likely provide the great bulk of your colony's protein. And of course that also means plenty of eggs!

Dairy supplies will be limited and valuable, as cows/goats/whatever have to be raised indoors in limited space. Red meat is a rare luxury, available mainly when an old or injured animal is put down. Although, oddly enough, it may skew towards veal--bull calves would be slaughtered immediately after birth to save resources, rather than raised to adult size first. In any case, if four-legged livestock are raised at all it will be strictly for milk, with meat being a happy byproduct.

(Oh--in addition to repelling mammals, capsaicin also appears to have anti-fungal properties. So you may be out of luck if you brought a stock of morel and truffle spores.)

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    $\begingroup$ In such an environment, how spicy would the eggs be? $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Dec 11 '19 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ What about fiber? Everyone would get sick with only meat. $\endgroup$ – axsvl77 Dec 12 '19 at 1:57
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    $\begingroup$ @axsvl77 I read this as "in addition to the plants you are farming". $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner supports Monica Dec 12 '19 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ @axsvl77: "I've never heard of any plants being negatively affected by capsaicin, so you're probably good there." $\endgroup$ – Martha Dec 12 '19 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Martha Wouldn't the plants absorb capsaicin from the soil? That might be some picante corn. $\endgroup$ – axsvl77 Dec 12 '19 at 23:21
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It sounds like the simplest solution will be to build greenhouses and tents to live in and grow Earth plants to eat. Air and water can be filtered to remove the toxins or at least bring them down to tolerable levels.

Since the "heat" in the local plant life is not tolerable, but I am assuming the plants are otherwise edible or useful as raw materials, then plants can be processed by soaking or boiling them in alcohol or some other solvent which removes the noxious materials. This is done either outdoors, or in a separate facility where people in protective suits and masks can oversee the process. How the waste is disposed of can be dealt with in a multitude of ways, including making parabolic mirrors and heating the waste into an incandescent plasma, breaking everything down into its raw atoms (this is by far the most extreme method, but heating the material until the toxins have broken down and then disposing of the waste is likely to work with most biologicals).

Humans will find the place unpleasant, and living in greenhouses likely to be rather restrictive and slowing a lot of their planned expansion through the world, but nothing really insurmountable. Long term, a great deal of effort is going to be made understanding the local ecology and determining how to breed plants for a much lower level of "heat". Of course if plants need to generate this much "heat", then you should really be asking pointed questions about the animal life as well....

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Capsaicin is irritating: when coming in contact with eyes or mucous membranes of mammals, it produces pain and breathing difficulty, that's why it is used in pepper spray and by polices to disperse ill intentioned targets.

Since you state

A certain concentration even permeates the very air they breathe.

this means that they will constantly feel like being sprayed with pepper spray.

While the content in the food can be somehow mitigated (alcohol is a good solvent, while casein present in milk and cheese completely inactivates it), they will be forced to wear gas masks to be able to perform any activity.

As you might know, performing intense physical activity while wearing a gas mask is challenging, to put it mildly.

Their only hope is to evolve by not being sensitive to capsaicin any more. But that would take generations before being effective.

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    $\begingroup$ There's some scope for a positive-pressure mask, with a battery driven fan, if you wanted to do stuff that had a higher oxygen demand. There's also quite a lot of scope for developing resistance to the irritating effects of capsicin... pepper sprays aren't universally effective, after all... $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 10 '19 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Generations? People regularly experience capsaicin desensitization on Earth. Within a single lifetime (weeks/months, usually). Since the spiciness is so strong it may take generations to become completely insensitive to capsaicin, but you won't really need to be completely insensitive to prosper. $\endgroup$ – cowlinator Dec 23 '19 at 23:48
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I take it you want them to survive?

The things that might kill them off early on are:

(a) the level of capsaicin vapour in the air which might act sufficiently like a perma-pepper spray that they just can't see well enough to accomplish anything. Either they need masks (if you want to up their reliance on technology) or the airborne level needs to be low enough to just create mild but tolerable eye discomfort (if you want to make things marginally more bearable for them long-term);

(b) available food / water being so spicy that people can't bear to eat / drink enough (or can't do so without vomiting it back up) and die of starvation or thirst.

If they can cope sufficiently with the airborne capsaicin and keep down some food and water, they will probably be able to survive, though I would imagine life will be pretty unbearable until they develop a strong tolerance.

The hottest sauce I've tried is Blair's 3a.m. reserve at around 2 million Scovilles. I tried just a drop on the tine of a fork, and it caused me a good 10 minutes of pain. I can't imagine being able to consume enough food / water to survive if it were all a similar heat to the Blair's, let alone the horror of getting that level of heat in my eyes (or on my genitals) from simple exposure to the air.

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  • $\begingroup$ Completely agree. Your food being basically inedible without some sort of processing sounds horrible enough but the idea you could potentially get what are basically burns any time you leave any skin exposed sounds like a fresh hell itself. $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 10 '19 at 15:14
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Staying indoors solves this problem. The colonists just have to survive long enough to prepare "indoors".

Most of the raw environmental danger is immaterial. It is exposure to the environment that is a problem. The described environment is so harsh and so inescapably unpleasant that the colonists would likely prioritize separating themselves from that environment as thoroughly as possible.

A large building or complex of buildings is unlikely to bother the colonists all that much. After all, they've spent a great deal of time living in the colony ship itself (back when it was intact). Instead of dealing with the capsaicin in the environment, the colonists would assemble relatively airtight structures as quickly as they possibly could.

Specific mechanisms would depend on what they could build and maintain most reliably, but coming from an interplanetary colony ship suggests that they have options potentially up to self-sufficient, hermetically sealed structures constantly recycling air and chemical products.

Trips outside would be limited to necessary excursions, and involve protective gear like goggles and face masks or even portable oxygen tanks (like a scuba diver). Resources that need to be cleaned of capsaicin (maybe they need to eat some of the local food to maintain the population, etc.) could be addressed with various chemical processes (another answer mentioned some solvents that might help).

These techniques would be best handled by trained specialists, but even if specialists were not available the colony ship would almost certainly have extensive technical information in a library that would preclude the need to learn the techniques from scratch.

The major question would be if the colonists are able to build these structures given the difficulty of the environment. The answer to that depends on how much capsaicin is in the air (especially), as the effect could range from mildly irritating to totally debilitating. That's under your control as you define the setting, and so you can choose whatever level of attrition might apply until the airtight structures are prepared.

The society of the colonists may not be affected by the spicy environment much at all, aside from being organized to limit contact with the outdoors. If they could survive on the colony ship, they can probably survive on this planet, as long as there is a large enough living population to perform necessary colony tasks.

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    $\begingroup$ The first thing that came to mind of 'society' change would be that literally anything sweet, sour, or just NOT hot would be considered a delicacy. That and there would probably be like 50 different words for describing the spiciness of something :) $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 10 '19 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Raznarok I hadn't been thinking in that direction (I'd classify those as culture more than society, but you are 100% correct that there would be some adjustments to some details regarding to their new planet). All such specific details would grow out from how much of a problem you wanted the spicy environment to be-- if they have automated processes which "clean" the spiciness out of food, then non-spicy food wouldn't be a delicacy, it would just be normal. By "society' I'd been thinking more along the lines of government structure or ethical values, not linguistic quirks. $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case Dec 11 '19 at 19:01
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The other answers ignore a common method for people have used for transforming terrain to improve habitability: Fire.

Firstly, on finding the air toxic, most of the settlers will return to their sealed escape pods. These escape pods were designed for space, and atmospheric re-entry, and hence they are tolerant to thermal heat. Escape pods also have radios, so that the different groups can coordinate.

People will need only use their space suits to enter the forest, light a rip-roaring fire, then go back to their pods, and wait. The pods, as stated above, are resistant to thermal heat, so fire won't be an issue. With the first 100,000 square miles cleared, they can begin Earth based agriculture. This agriculture will compete with local flora to reduce the quantity of "spicy air" in the area, and hence allow people to emerge from the pods.

And if burning 100,000 square miles of forest is not sufficient, people are destructive enough to destroy all the flora on the planet, and replace it with gentle Earth Flora.

While this isn't the most pleasant answer, these are humans after all. When they need to decide between their own deaths and destroying the environment, they will destroy the environment.

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  • $\begingroup$ @T.J.L. What good is any space-born escape pod that can't land somewhere? I'm visualizing the one that R2D2 took to Tatooine. $\endgroup$ – axsvl77 Dec 12 '19 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ After rereading, I think you're still not terribly clear on that point. Furthermore, the idea that people can walk around on the surface in space suits (space suits that they for some reason have on a escape capsule) isn't terribly likely either - modern space suits (the technology level these people are supposed to have available) are bulky and difficult to maneuver in. I hadn't initially downvoted, but upon the requested re-reading, I'm now doing so. $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Dec 12 '19 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ There's no trolling here. I started with a suggestion. You requested I reread. I did so. Upon doing so, I found the answer to be weaker than my original assessment. Improve the answer and the downvote could be removed or reverted. $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Dec 12 '19 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ @T.J.L. Please read here to understand what comments are for. It says:Request clarification from the author; Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post; Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated). Your first comment was helpful, if a bit silly. The last few were self-righteous trolling. $\endgroup$ – axsvl77 Dec 12 '19 at 22:02
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Well, they have no choice, so they have to take the heat. The component that makes peppers hot is called capsaicin. Pure capsaicin has 16 million scoville, so that's the maximum any of the plants or creatures may have.

So they could for example drink lots of alcohol with their food, because capsaicin is soluble in that. The better idea - since you don't know which plants or creatures are toxic for humans - is to grow their own seeds from earth. They may still be a bit spicy, but they may be mild enough to get used to them. On earth, there are many societies that like to eat spicy hot meals, that may be too hot for people who are not used to it.

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    $\begingroup$ Lots of Tequilas with your Chilli $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 10 '19 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ I'd assume this would work for surface contact as well? Just douse someone in milk or alcohol as a 'decon' of sorts. $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 10 '19 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, they could wash their hands with alcohol, but it may be easier to wear gloves instead. $\endgroup$ – Dorian Dec 10 '19 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ I'm referring to accidental severe exposure and such. $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 10 '19 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think that accidental exposure would be a problem. If you touch a hot pepper in real world, it won't harm you. Even if you cut it open and touch the inside, you will hardly feel anything on your fingers. The main problem will be breathing the spicy air and eating the hot food. Both will result in a running nose and tears. But to answer your question: Yes, you can wash your skin with (diluted) alcohol. From my experience, milk doesn't work as good, but may be an option, too. $\endgroup$ – Dorian Dec 10 '19 at 15:47
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They probably wouldn't have known what the plant life was like on the planet before colonizing it so they probably have the means to grow Earth food.

Even if the green houses on the ship were destroyed, they can purify water by distilling it and use it to wash \ soak the local foodstuff to make it more mild.

Another way to counteract the spiciness is to dilute with water (eat a lot of soups), or add sugar, acid (lemon, vinegar), or dairy.

Finally, if they do have some starchy foods like rice, potatoes, bread, etc, they can eat it along with the local stuff to make it more palatable

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    $\begingroup$ Capsaicin isn't water soluble, it's fat soluble. That's why you need cream or milk to calm your palette after spicy food. Any vegetable oil or animal fat will work, avocados, nut butter, oil, cream, mayo. $\endgroup$ – Ben Dec 13 '19 at 10:50
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I have a lame answer but here it goes: Capsazepine. Capsazepine stops the painful sensation of heat and pain caused by capsaicin (and some other irratents such as the venom of some taranchula species) by blocking the activation of the TRPV1 ion channels. It has also has been experimentally used to desensitize the receptors permanently, to provide relief from chronic pain in specific cases.

Logistically this is a great solution since Capsazepine is created by the chemical modification of capsaicin!

Capsaicin does not actually cause a chemical burn, or indeed any direct tissue damage at all. The inflammation resulting from exposure to capsaicin is believed to be the result of the body's reaction to nerve excitement.(source) This would cause the body to inflame tissues as if it has undergone a burn or abrasion and the resulting inflammation would cause tissue damage in cases of extreme exposure.

Side note: The TRPV1 ion channels are thought to be responsible for our range of temperature sensation.

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  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a really strong piece of the solution if you can synthesize it from the compound it is antagonistic to. $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 12 '19 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Raznarok Wikipedia cited this as to how it is was created (I don't understand much of it): pubs.acs.org/doi/suppl/10.1021/jm00039a006/suppl_file/… $\endgroup$ – Andrew Mellor Dec 12 '19 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ I doubt it would be difficult to manufacture an OTC version given more advanced medical science and equipment to make it. It looks like its possible to do so already but there is no real pressing need for it, unlike in this scenario. The limited production capacity of the ship racing to catch up with the colony would be the real challenge here. $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 12 '19 at 18:13
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An alien biogenesis and billions of years of random evolution would result in a completely different biochemistry. Whatever organisms lived there might well be based on carbon and water but probably not DNA as we know it. The amino acids used (if they were used at all) might be different with a different handedness and D-amino acids are toxic for most life on Earth which use L-amino acids.

Basically life there would be at very best inedible and irritant and more likely toxic every step of the way. It would be like living in an organic chemistry lab where some mad scientist had cooked up thousands of different chemicals at random and was asking people to breathe them and eat them. So you scenario is in some ways likely but would be just the tip of the iceberg. It wouldn't end well, everyone would have to live in domes isolated from the environment to stay alive.

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    $\begingroup$ It wouldn't surprise me in the least to discover that alien live does use amino acids. If it uses amino acids, pretty much the only variation from earth amino acids are D- vs L-. Amino acids are sufficiently simple that there just aren't that many choices. Even with D- vs L-, it is quite possible that the slight asymmetry of the weak nuclear force is enough to prefer L- forms. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner supports Monica Dec 12 '19 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ You might be right about the usage of amino acids as they are such basic molecules, but around 500 different natural amino acids are known en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amino_acid and all except glycine are optically active. There are probably a lot more and which ones form or predominate and what they are used for would depend on the particular environment. Beyond that the mind boggling complexity of earth based biochemistry (eg biochemical-pathways.com/#/map/1) could not reasonably be expected to be recreated in the same way on an alien world by effectively random mutational effects. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Dec 12 '19 at 16:59

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