Our understanding of life in the universe comes from one sample, life on Earth. Current and next-generation space missions will target exoplanets as well as planets and moons in our own solar system with the primary goal of detecting, interpreting and characterizing indications of possible biological activity. Thus, understanding life's fundamental characteristics is increasingly critical for detecting and interpreting potential biological signatures elsewhere in the universe. Astrobiologists have outlined the essential roles of carbon and water for life, but we have yet to decipher the rules governing the evolution of how living organisms use bioessential elements. Does the suite of life's essential chemical elements on Earth constitute only one possible evolutionary outcome? Are some elements so essential for biological functions that evolution will select for them despite low availability? How would this play out on other worlds that have different relative element abundances? When we look for life in the universe, or the conditions that could give rise to life, we must learn how to recognize it in extremely different chemical and environmental conditions from those on Earth. We argue that by exposing self-organizing biotic chemistries to different combinations of abiotic materials, and by mapping the evolutionary history of metalloenzyme biochemistry onto geological availabilities of metals, alternative element choices that are very different from life's present-day molecular structure might result. A greater understanding of the paleomolecular evolutionary history of life on Earth will create a predictive capacity for detecting and assessing life's existence on worlds where alternate evolutionary paths might have been taken.
Keywords: early life; elements; exoplanets; metals; nitrogen fixation; origins of life.
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