Aliens Could Live Like This! Life Found in Oily Goo

Aug 11, 2014

By Charles Q. Choi

 

Extremely tiny newfound habitats hidden within oil could expand the potential for life in the universe, researchers say.

Scientists have discovered microbes living in microscopic droplets of water inside a giant asphalt lake on Earth, suggesting that alien life could perhaps exist within ponds of sludge on distant landscapes such as Saturn’s largest moon Titan.

Researchers investigated the largest naturally occurring asphalt lake on Earth, Pitch Lake on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Black goo there oozes across roughly 114 acres (0.46 square kilometers), an area equivalent to nearly 90 football fields.

Prior studies had found that microbes could thrive at the boundary where oil and water meet in nature, helping to break down the oil. However, investigators had thought oil was too toxic for life, and that the levels of any water inside the oil were below the threshold for life on Earth.

“Oil was considered to be dead,”said lead study author Rainer Meckenstock, an environmental microbiologist at Helmholtz Zentrum München, in Germany.

Now, scientists find microbes active within Pitch Lake, dwelling inside water droplets as small as 1 microliter, about one-fiftieth the size of an average drop of water.

“Each of these water droplets basically contains a little mini-ecosystem,”study co-author Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Washington State University in Pullman, told Live Science.

These droplets contain a diverse group of microbial species that are breaking the oil down into a variety of organic molecules. The chemistry of the droplets suggests this water does not come from rain, but from ancient seawater, or brine from deep underground.

5 comments on “Aliens Could Live Like This! Life Found in Oily Goo

  • Quite why this is a surprise, I do not understand. Marine and other heavy fuel and diesel users have known this for years. There are some nearly thirty bacteria, yeasts, and fungi that are known to infect and thrive in oil, both as it comes out of the ground and infecting as far up the cat cracker as cetane. Infected reserves spread the bacteria, and common good practice requires routine bunker testing.

    Their treatment with a variety of biocides and other proprietary additives, testing, and filtration is also well known.



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  • Quite why this is a surprise, I do not understand.

    I was thinking the same thing. In the subsurface, biodegradation of oil within reservoirs is a widespread and well-documented phenomenon that has been identified and reported by geochemists right back to the 1920’s. If bacteria/microbes can happily munch on oil down at 2km below the ground surface (where pore fluid pressures would typically be around 2500 psi under normal hydrostatic conditions) then it seems likely that a surface oil seep would, by comparison, make for a nice easy-going habitat for them.

    Furthermore, the oil in this seep is known to have leaked to the surface from a subsurface reservoir that has been breached due to active faulting. So it’s not really surprising that associated subsurface formation water that was encased by the oil (and migrated to the surface along with it) contains oil-munching microbes that are know to have a widespread occurrence elsewhere.

    In any case, water is still a necessary component of the system, so its also not altogether clear how this makes much of a difference to the likelihood of life within ponds of sludge in locations such as Titan, where the presence of liquid water is highly unlikely.



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  • Steve_M Aug 12, 2014 at 10:15 am

    In any case, water is still a necessary component of the system, so its also not altogether clear how this makes much of a difference to the likelihood of life within ponds of sludge in locations such as Titan, where the presence of liquid water is highly unlikely.

    Very much so! At temperatures of around minus 170°c, water on Titan is a rock and the chemistry is likely to be so slow that life is unlikely to have evolved.



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