Scientists shocked to find life in flammable ice is building ‘death stars’

5 Feb 2020

Image: © GiroScience/

The discovery of microbial life within so-called ‘flammable ice’ suggests that microbes could build their own ‘death stars’ on distant planets.

In the Sea of Japan, an international research team has made a surprising discovery with major implications for the likelihood of alien life elsewhere in the universe. The team was studying so-called ‘flammable ice’, otherwise called methane hydrate, which forms when ice traps methane in its molecular structure.

However, closer analysis revealed that within this flammable ice was the existence of microbial life; microhabitats grown within tiny bubbles of oil and water found within these sheets of gas and ice.

The startling discovery was made during a mission, led by Prof Ryo Matsumoto from Meiji University in Japan, to see if flammable ice is an energy source that emits less waste carbon than traditional fossil fuels.

When Dr Glen T Snyder, lead author of the new study, melted the hydrate, he noticed a strange powder consisting of microscopic spheres with even stranger dark cores.

Microscopic image of the spheroid microhabitat dubbed the 'death star'.

Image of a microhabitat that grew in methane hydrate, dubbed the ‘death star’ by the scientists who worked on the project. Image: University of Aberdeen

A ‘positive spin to cold, dark places’

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

“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,” Bowden said.

Snyder said that the methane in flammable ice is known to form as microbes degrade organic matter on the sea floor. However, it was a complete surprise to find that microbes continue to grow and produce spheroids, all while isolated within minuscule, cold, dark pockets of saltwater and oil.

Bowden said the discovery gives a “positive spin to cold, dark places”.

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

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic