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Trinidad's Pitch Lake is a huge, oily, and filled with millions of tons of asphalt. It may not sound like a great place to live, but the lake is teeming with microscopic life! And learning more about these organisms could give us insight into how life could exist on other, less hospitable worlds.

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Sources:
https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2016AGUFM.P33D2188K/abstract
https://traveltips.usatoday.com/history-pitch-lake-trinidad-58120.html
https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-five-natural-asphalt-lake-areas-in-the-world.html
https://www.space.com/8356-earth-asphalt-lakes-hint-possibility-life-titan.html
https://www.businessinsider.com/pitch-lake-in-trinidad-natural-asphalt-2013-5
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21480792
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/pitch-lake
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/501974/10-fascinating-facts-about-la-brea-tar-pits
https://phys.org/news/2010-04-microbes-natural-asphalt-lake.html
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5632352/#S5title
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039128X18300795?via%3Dihub
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190709141249.htm
http://uwispace.sta.uwi.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2139/1727/AmaliaHosein_AB.pdf?sequence=3
https://www.sciencealert.com/tiny-organisms-have-been-found-living-in-oil-and-eating-it-too
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322235030_Pyrene_and_naturally_occurring_pyrene_degrading_bacteria_adjacent_to_the_La_Brea_Pitch_Lake_in_Trinidad
https://science.sciencemag.org/content/345/6197/673
♪♪♪.

On the Carribean island of Trinidad, there’s a huge, oily lake made from millions of tons of asphalt… and it contains the remains of lots of unlucky creatures. But it’s not just some giant pond of pavement.

Or, death. In fact, this pool of oil and dirt has taught us a lot about life—from what it might look like elsewhere in the universe to how we can save what we have right here on Earth. Pitch Lake is the largest naturally-occurring asphalt lake on the planet.

And I know what you’re thinking right now! You’re thinking “there’s more than one?!” Well, there isn’t a ton of competition for the title. We only know of about a handful of such lakes.

Still, they’ve gained something of a reputation as places of doom and destruction. And for good reason! Instead of water, the liquid in Pitch Lake is mostly oil; what chemists call hydrocarbons.

According to one theory, the lake formed when one tectonic plate forced its way under another. That pushed oil deposits upward from the bowels of the Earth. The lighter components of the oil floated to the top and evaporated, leaving behind a heavy slick which mixed with water, mud, and other things in the surrounding environment to form a dark, thick sludge.

That sludge also happens to be a balmy 32 to 56 degrees Celsius. And over the millennia, it has served as a kind of natural trap for wildlife. Though a lot of the lake is solid enough to sustain a person’s weight, other parts are more like quicksand.

And in those spots, unwary animals can get stuck and sink—something which has happened a lot. Lots of fossils and skeletons and even archaeological artifacts have been removed from the muck in pristine condition, since the sticky goo prevents them from decomposing or being degraded by the elements or scavengers. In fact, such finds are what Pitch Lake’s smaller cousin—the La Brea Tar Pits in California—is famous for.

But don’t let all that fool you into thinking asphalt lakes are giant pools of death. Even though there’s very little water or oxygen in its quote “waters”, Pitch Lake is actually teeming with life. For example, one 2011 study published in the journal Astrobiology found up to ten million organisms can live in a single gram of sludge from Pitch Lake.

Though that’s about half of what you’d get from, say, a gram of water from one of the Great Lakes in Michigan, it’s still a lot of microbes. And we’re not talking about just one type of organism, either. Genetic sequencing revealed an incredible diversity of bacteria and other microbes living within the asphalt, and around thirty percent of the species were previously unknown to science!

But, that wasn’t what excited the team most. See, the reason this study was published in Astrobiology instead of a regular microbial journal is that there are lakes on other worlds which look a heck of a lot like Pitch Lake. Specifically, the ones on Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Previous studies had already suggested Titan’s lakes check many of the boxes for sustaining life, with one main exception: there’s not enough water. The lakes are full of hydrocarbons like methane instead, so it was thought that life simply couldn’t survive in them. But, very little water and lots of hydrocarbons seem to be no issue for Pitch Lake’s microbes.

So, their mere existence suggests it’s possible there’s life on Titan, too. Of course, there is still some liquid water in Pitch Lake, which is warm, and that’s not necessarily true of Titan’s methane lakes, which are very cold. And there’s a big difference between an environment being able to sustain life and having life arise in it.

Still, even if Pitch Lake’s microbes aren’t a preview of life on Titan, they have a lot to offer their fellow Earthlings. They could help us combat infectious diseases, for example. In a 2018 study, researchers were able to isolate cholic acid derivatives from a Pitch Lake bacterium, molecules generally used to prevent other bacteria from growing.

So Pitch Lake’s microbes could help us develop new antibiotics, which would be very helpful given that lots of nasty things are becoming resistant to the ones we have. And in addition to saving lives, studying the flora of Pitch Lake could help save the environment. A 2014 study published in Science analyzed minuscule water droplets from the oils of Pitch Lake, and concluded that they contain microbes which actively eat the hydrocarbons in their surrounding environment.

Other studies examining the soils next to the lake have also found bacteria that dine on these oils. Which is very good, because hydrocarbons are notoriously difficult to break down. Taken together, these results could have implications for cleaning up oil spills, whether they’re on land or in water.

Scientists could, for example, introduce oil-eating bacteria to an area to remove a spill more efficiently. And they may not even need the bacteria themselves. It might be possible to isolate the enzymes the microbes use to digest hydrocarbons and use those to develop a way of cleaning up oil on a much larger scale.

So yeah, even if Pitch Lake doesn’t sound to you like an ideal vacation spot, it’s a pretty great thing that so many microbes disagree. And by studying the organisms that think a large, hot lake of asphalt is prime real estate, we can learn a lot of useful things—and maybe even get a glimpse of what awaits us on other worlds. If all this talk about life on places like Titan has you itching to learn more, I have good news for you!

Over on our sister channel SciShow Space, we talk a lot about whether there’s other life in the universe, where it’s most likely to be hiding, and how we’d know. There are even whole episodes on Titan and what it looks like! And just like this channel, every episode is totally free to watch—because free, educational science videos are what we do here at SciShow.

So all you have to do to learn all about this wonderful, weird universe we live in is head over to YouTube.com/SciShowSpace or click the link in the description. ♪♪♪.