If you live in an area like I do where the potholes from last winter are still flattening tires, denting rims and devouring small vehicles, you probably cheer when road crews show up in trucks loaded with asphalt and fill those holes with thick black goo. Would you feel bad if you knew that the goo might contain living things and they could be proof that life can exist on Saturn’s moon, Titan? Me neither.
Researchers dipping into Pitch Lake on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, the largest naturally occurring asphalt lake on Earth, have discovered active microbes living inside water droplets found in the hot, oily, inhospitable sludge.
And not just one but lots of them, according to Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor in Washington State University’s School of the Environment who was the only American on the team and co-authored their report in the journal Science.
We saw a huge diversity of bacteria and archaea. That’s why we speak of an ‘ecosystem,’ because we have so much diversity in the water droplets.
The researchers believe the microbes can exist in the oil because the droplets are from ancient sea water or underground brine that have slowly worked their way to the surface over time. The same thing could be occurring on Titan, where the surface is covered with similar hydrocarbon lakes where water-ammonia droplets could exist and provide homes for alien microbes.
Here’s another reason to love these hardy microbes – they eat oil. It’s a slow process but important for oil spill cleanup because it means microbes can break down oil from within and not just around the edges where oil and water meet.
The water droplets in Pitch Lake were as small as a microliter, which is about 1/50th of a drop of water, so it will be difficult to find these microscopic habitats on Titan, but the potential is promising.
If life is ever found in the asphalt lakes on Titan, I promise I’ll stop complaining about potholes.