Flammable Ice Reveals Flourishing Life

“life was flourishing and leaving its mark.” Dr Bowden

Scientists studying so-called ‘flammable ice’ in the Sea of Japan have made a startling new discovery – the existence of life within microscopic bubbles that offer a tantalising clue as to the potential for life on other planets.

'Death Star' microhabitat

Image of a microhabitat that grew in methane hydrate. Dubbed the ‘Death Star’ by the scientists who worked on the project, it grew from microbial activity at near freezing temperatures, deep underwater, in one of the countless isolated pockets of saltwater and oil found within methane hydrate.

The micro habitats are grown by microbes within tiny bubbles of oil and water found in sheets of frozen gas and ice.

The tiny bubbles are scattered within large underwater rafts of hydrate, known as ‘flammable ice’ or methane hydrate, which forms when ice traps methane within its molecular structure.

The discovery of the microhabitats is revealed in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, a Nature publication. It stemmed from a larger project led by Professor Ryo Matsumoto from Meiji University in Japan, which was investigating methane hydrate as an energy source that emits less waste-carbon than traditional fossil fuels.

Dr Glen T. Snyder, lead author of the study, was melting hydrate to study methane gas when he noticed an unusual powder consisting of microscopic spheroids with mysterious dark cores. He then set about collecting a group of like-minded scientists to investigate further.

Using analytical techniques pioneered at the University of Aberdeen and suited to small sample quantities, Dr Stephen Bowden from the University’s School of Geosciences was able to show that oil was being degraded in the micro environments within the methane hydrate.

Dr Bowden said:

“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.” 

Dr Snyder continued:

“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.

“It certainly gives a positive spin to cold dark places, and opens up a tantalising clue as to the existence of life on other planets.

Dr Bowden added:

“It certainly changes how I think about things. Providing they have ice and a little heat, all those frigid cold planets at the edge of every planetary system could host tiny micro habitats with microbes building their own ‘death stars’ and making their own tiny little atmospheres and ecosystems, just as we discovered here.”

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  1. Re. bubbles in ice – what they can contain, and what they can tell us –
    In ‘Underland’, Robert MacFarlane touches on this subject. And, when reading that book, here’s what I wrote……….

    “Bubbles in ice. Bubbles in very old ice…….Yey! Whilst doing a small bear dance. Air, caught in very old ice – like core samples, but more so. Yey!
    The idea of what’s trapped in bubbles in ancient ice, is a wonder-full idea. The air, the air of that time, caught in the ice. I love that idea. Once again, the wonder and the horror of our life on this earth, walk hand in hand.
    Ice – preserves. For good or ill.”

    I can’t help thinking, though, when reading this article – do we not learn our lessons? We exploited fossil fuels, and then found that to have not been such a good idea, after all. So, we probe, deeper and farther, for energy sources, but they are usually energy sources which exploit, and smash….something.
    We don’t appear to be learning.

    It was o.k. when it was reasonably superficial, but now, we drill, and blast, and go deeper and deeper…..too much, I think. There have been examples, where drilling has begun, un-settled the strata, and there are un-stoppable mud or oil flows. Earthquakes happen, where they didn’t used to! I believe that we’re being too invasive, and we won’t get away with it. It’s logical, anyway……displace something within the earth, remove something from within the earth, creating a vacuum, something’s got to give.
    Steve Drury, in his ‘Earth-logs’ http://earthlogs.org/ , describes this much better than I can.

    Two words……. RENEWABLE ENERGY.

  2. I sent this article on, to Steve Drury, who commented……..

    “It’s no surprise that bugs live in it to “feed” on the methane. Through simple reactions they get both energy and carbon-based building blocks for cell formation – chemo-autotrophy. This might just be one discovery of the thousands of unknown species of single celled Archaea and Bacteria thought to be present in marine environments.

    Simply put, if a “free lunch” is available evolution will often result in something to consume it. But before that happens there needs already to be some lifeform that can do the evolving. This bug is an extremophile, and exobiologists pounce on them to speculate on life on other worlds. There’s a thriving cottage industry that lives entirely on the hype, in my opinion. But I am very skeptical!”

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