Suppose that we evolved on a planet entirely without zinc.

How would our civilization be different if we didn't have access to this metal? What alternatives would we develop? What technologies would become impossible, if any?

Here are some assumptions you may make:

  1. Humans (and, if you want to assume further, the rest of life as we know it) exist magically supported by something that takes zinc's place. If you can address how life would evolve without zinc, that would be cool, but I'm more interested in how our current civilization would be different, which assumes something analogous to humans exist.

  2. Our current scientific theory is not disrupted by this hole in the periodic table. I don't know what the ramifications are for the absence of an element, and I don't really want to think about what "problems" that might cause - you may assume we just don't have any means of obtaining it if that is easier.

I'm happy to add more assumptions if there are more fundamental issues with the absence of zinc. My question seeks to identify what sort of a role zinc plays in our world and what alternatives we would use if it were gone.

This question is shamelessly taken from a sketch The Simpsons did about a world without zinc.

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    $\begingroup$ A world without zinc is not Earth. Everything would be different from the very beginnings of life. There are no humans. There may be intelligent creatures, there may even be a civilization, but those creatures are not humans and that civilization is not the human civilization. No, it is not possible to have a world without zinc (or even a world without dysprosium, or a world without ytterbium or your obscure metal of choice) and have humans in it. Humans are a species which evolved on Earth; any tiny little change in the make-up of the world will result in the absence of humans. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 28 '19 at 14:44

Zinc is widely used in industry as a protective coating such as galvanised steel, in alloys such as brass, nickel silver and aluminium solder, but all of these applications could be replaced by other materials in one way or another.

Other coatings are available that could do a similar job to zinc and in many cases copper could be substituted for zinc (although at greater cost) or some other alternative could be found.

Zinc is used in many other things like batteries but again there are alternatives many other metals can be and are used to make battery cells such as cadmium, lead, nickel and lithium.

So in summary it would be inconvenient but a world without zinc would not pose any insurmountable obstacles. Some things would take longer to develop or would cost more or might not work quite as well but we could easily get by and such a world could be similar to our own.

The same goes for natural processes. If zinc hadn’t been around nature would have found alternative molecules to use for the 20 or so zinc based enzymes used in the human body without difficulty. Note it would be much simpler to assume no zinc is present than to try to eliminate the possibility of its physical existence.

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    $\begingroup$ Zinc fingers might be found in as many as 3% of the genes in the human genome. Zinc is chemically interesting in a number of ways which make it hard to trivially replace in that context, and getting rid of it is likely to require sweeping changes to proteomes. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 28 '19 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ Yes sweeping changes in biochemistry no doubt, but if zinc wasn't around nature would have found a different way over the past 4 billion years of evolution, possibly slightly less efficiently or involving more steps but I don't think it would have been a show stopper. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Dec 28 '19 at 10:50

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