Microbes found growing in a tar pit

Posted Aug 9, 2014 by Tim Sandle
A new study has shown that microdroplets of water in a natural asphalt lake are home to active microbial life. This has thrown up the re-occurring question of whether such bacteria could exist on seeming inhospitable planets.
Tar ball on beach.
Tar ball on beach.
Geoff Livingston/flickr
For the study, researchers collected undisturbed samples of oil from Pitch Lake, the world’s largest natural asphalt lake, in La Brea, Trinidad and Tobago. La Brea (Spanish for "the tar"), consists of pools, reeds and grayish asphalt.
The research, Nature News reports, has conclusively shown that tiny droplets of water found in oil samples from a tar pit harbor active microbial life. Under a microscope, the researchers discovered motile, metabolically active microbes in drops of water. Further analysis indicated that the recovered bacteria actively metabolize oil from the oily lake. Chemicals within the water were distinct from samples of lake oil mixed with distilled water, suggesting that the microbes were processing the oil.
Sequencing the bacteria in these droplets revealed communities that included bacterial species from the orders Burkholderiales, Enterobacteriales, and others typically found in oil samples
The research, D-Brief suggests, offers strategies to prevent biodegradation of oil reservoirs or top help clean up oil spills. The study also offers a hint that other seemingly inhospitable environments might be home to such life forms. This speculation extends to other planets in the far reaches of our galaxy.
The findings have been published in the journal Science. The paper is titled "Water droplets in oil are microhabitats for microbial life."