‘Microhabitats:’ Potential for extraterrestrial life, oil cleanup

By Eric Sorensen, WSU science writer

schulze-makuchPULLMAN, Wash. – An international team of researchers has found extremely small habitats that increase the potential for life on other planets while offering a way to clean up oil spills on our own.

Looking at samples from the world’s largest asphalt lake, scientists found active microbes in droplets as small as a microliter, which is about 1/50th of a drop of water.

“We saw a huge diversity of bacteria and archaea,” said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor in Washington State University’s School of the Environment and the only U.S. researcher on the team. “That’s why we speak of an ‘ecosystem,’ because we have so much diversity in the water droplets.”

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers report they also found the microbes were actively degrading oil in the asphalt, suggesting a similar phenomenon could be used to clean up oil spills.

“For me, the cool thing is I got into it from an astrobiology viewpoint, as an analog to Saturn’s moon, Titan, where we have a hydrocarbon lake on the surface,” said Schulze-Makuch. “But this shows astrobiology has great environmental applications, because of the biodegradation of oil compounds.”

Schulze-Makuch and his colleagues in 2010 found that the 100-acre Pitch Lake, on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, was teeming with microbial life. This opened up the possibility of life on Titan as well as other planets.

The new paper adds a microscopic level of detail about how life can exist in such a harsh environment.

“We discovered that there are additional habitats, where we have not looked, where life can occur and thrive,” said Schulze-Makuch.

Analyzing the droplets’ isotopic signatures and salt content, the researchers determined that they were not coming from rain or groundwater, but from ancient sea water or brine deep underground.


Dirk Schulze-Makuch, WSU School of the Environment, o: (in Germany) +49-30-8058-3028; c: (text for a call back) 509-715-7197; dirksm@wsu.edu