Habitable Zones & Global Climate

An Energy Balance Concept for Habitability

By Keith Cowing
January 2, 2008

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 824-838


Habitability can be formulated as a balance between the biological demand for energy and the corresponding potential for meeting that demand by transduction of energy from the environment into biological process. The biological demand for energy is manifest in two requirements, analogous to the voltage and power requirements of an electrical device, which must both be met if life is to be supported.

These requirements exhibit discrete (non-zero) minima whose magnitude is set by the biochemistry in question, and they are increased in quantifiable fashion by (i) deviations from biochemically optimal physical and chemical conditions and (ii) energy-expending solutions to problems of resource limitation. The possible rate of energy transduction is constrained by (i) the availability of usable free energy sources in the environment, (ii) limitations on transport of those sources into the cell, (iii) upper limits on the rate at which energy can be stored, transported, and subsequently liberated by biochemical mechanisms (e.g., enzyme saturation effects), and (iv) upper limits imposed by an inability to use “power” and “voltage” at levels that cause material breakdown.

A system is habitable when the realized rate of energy transduction equals or exceeds the biological demand for energy. For systems in which water availability is considered a key aspect of habitability (e.g., Mars), the energy balance construct imposes additional, quantitative constraints that may help to prioritize targets in search-for-life missions. Because the biological need for energy is universal, the energy balance construct also helps to constrain habitability in systems (e.g., those envisioned to use solvents other than water) for which little constraint currently exists.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) πŸ––πŸ»