Washington, Aug 8: Researchers have found extremely small habitats on the Earth itself that increase the potential for life existing on other planets while offering a way to clean up oil spills. Looking at samples from the world’s largest natural asphalt lake on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, they found active microbes in droplets as small as a microliter – about 1/50th of a drop of water.

“We saw a huge diversity of bacteria and archaea. That is why we speak of an ‘ecosystem’ because we have so much diversity in the water droplets,” said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor in Washington State University’s school of the environment. The researchers also found that the microbes were actively degrading oil in the asphalt, suggesting a similar phenomenon could be used to clean up oil spills.

Schulze-Makuch and his colleagues in 2011 found that the 100-acre Pitch Lake was teeming with microbial life which is also thought to increase the likelihood of life on Jupiter’s moon Titan. “We discovered that there are additional habitats where we have not looked at where life can occur and thrive,” Schulze-Makuch added.

Analysing the droplets’ isotopic signatures and salt content, researchers determined that they were not coming from rain or groundwater, but ancient sea water or a brine deep underground. The study appeared in the journal Science.