Scottish researchers believe tiny ‘death stars’ found in so-called ‘flammable ice’ could hold clues for discovering life on frozen planets near the edge of our solar system.

Microbes within tiny bubbles of oil and water found in sheets of frozen gas and ice in the Sea of Japan were found to produce microhabitats allowing tiny traces of life to thrive in hostile conditions.

Scientists say microhabitats created when flammable ice, also known as methane hydrate - which forms when ice traps methane within its molecular structure - opens up the “tantalising” prospect that minuscule lifeforms could exist on outlying planets such as Neptune or Uranus.

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Researchers from the University of Aberdeen, who worked on the project as part of a wider study into the use of methane hydrate as an energy source by Meiji University, observed these ‘death stars’ produced an unusual powder consisting of microscopic spheroids with mysterious dark cores.

The discovery of the microhabitats is revealed in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, a Nature publication.

Dr Glen T. Snyder, lead author of the study, was melting hydrate to study methane gas when he noticed the substance.

Dr Stephen Bowden from the University’s School of Geosciences was then able to show that oil was being degraded in the microenvironments within the methane hydrate after using analytical techniques pioneered at the institution.

“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 Bowden said.

Dr Snyder continued: “The methane in ‘methane hydrate’ is known to form as microbes degrade organic matter on the seafloor.

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“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 microhabitats with microbes building their own ‘death stars’ and making their own tiny little atmospheres and ecosystems, just as we discovered here.”