Scientists have discovered the existence of life in tiny bubbles inside sheets of ‘flammable ice’ that could show how aliens exist on other planets.
Flammable ice, or methane hydrate, forms when ice traps methane within its molecular structure.
The team found tiny habitats, dubbed ‘death stars’, that are grown by bacteria within pockets of oil and water in flammable ice sheets from the Sea of Japan.
The fact that microhabitats exist in near-freezing temperatures conditions provides tantalising clues about the existence of life on other planets, the scientists say.
‘In combination with the other evidence collected by my colleagues, my results showed that even under near-freezing temperatures, at extremely high pressures, with only heavy oil and saltwater for food sources, life was flourishing and leaving its mark,’ said Dr Stephen Bowden at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences.
‘Providing they have ice and a little heat, all those frigid cold planets at the edge of every planetary system could host tiny microhabitats with microbes building their own “death stars” and making their own tiny little atmospheres and ecosystems, just as we discovered here.’
Methane comes from buried organic matter after it’s ingested by bacteria or heated and cooked.
The gas migrates upward, under high pressure and low temperature, and can combine with water to form methane hydrate, or ‘flammable gas’.
Dr Glen T Snyder, lead author of the study, from Meiji University in Japan, had been melting hydrate to study methane gas when he noticed an unusual powder consisting of microscopic spheroids with mysterious dark cores.
Using analytical techniques suited to small sample quantities, Dr Bowden was able to show that oil was being degraded in the micro-environments within the methane hydrate.
The methane in methane hydrate is known to form as microbes degrade organic matter on the seafloor.
‘But what we never expected to find was microbes continuing to grow and produce these spheroids, all of the time while isolated in tiny cold dark pockets of saltwater and oil,’ said Dr Snyder.
The discovery stemmed from a larger project led by Professor Ryo Matsumoto from Meiji University in Japan.
After the tsunami and nuclear disaster, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Economy (METI) allocated funding for research into non-conventional energy sources – one area of which has been gas hydrates.
The US Department of Energy also called for research proposals back in 2014 to tap into the great potential of flammable ice as a green energy source.
Methane is the main ingredient of natural gas and is naturally occurring, meaning it emits less waste carbon than traditional fossil fuels.
Natural supplies of the methane, such of those in Japan and along Alaska’s North Slope, could therefore be plentiful and environmentally friendly to burn.
The new discovery of the microhabitats is detailed in Scientific Reports.