Life Below Ground – at 250 Degrees!

By   Shlomo Maital

 A lot of money is being spent looking for life on Mars.

   What about looking for life on Earth – in unexplored places. It’s called “deep life”.

   A fascinating report by AFP, a global news agency, informs us:

   “Scientists have drilled a mile and a half (2.5 kilometers) beneath the seabed and found vast underground forests of “deep life,” including microbes that persist for thousands, maybe millions of years, researchers said Monday.   Feeding on nothing but the energy from rocks, and existing in a slow-motion, even zombie-like state, previously unknown forms of life are abundant beneath the Earth despite extreme temperatures and pressure.   About 70 percent of Earth’s bacteria and archaea — single-celled organisms with no nucleus — live underground, according to the latest findings of an international collaboration involving hundreds of experts, known as the Deep Carbon Observatory, were released at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington.   This “deep life” amounts to between 15 and 23 billion tons of carbon, said the DCO, launched in 2009, as it nears the end of its 10-year mission to reveal Earth’s inner secrets.   The deep biosphere of Earth is massive,” said Rick Colwell, who teaches astrobiology and oceanography at Oregon State University.

   A Japanese scientist who led the study said the following:

   “Most of deep life is very distinct from life on the surface,” said Fumio Inagaki, of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.   Using the Japanese scientific vessel Chikyu, researchers have drilled far beneath the seabed and removed cores that have given scientists a detailed look at deep life.   “The microbes are just sitting there and live for very, very long periods of time,” he told AFP. He described the team’s findings so far as a “very exciting, extreme ecosystem.” Among them may be Earth’s hottest living creature, Geogemma barossii, a single-celled organism found in hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. Its microscopic cells grow and replicate at 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 Celsius). [This is well above the boiling point of water!]  “There is genetic diversity of life below the surface that is at least equal to but perhaps exceeds that which is at the surface and we don’t know much about it,” Colwell said.    

       Brought up from these ancient coal beds and fed glucose in the lab, researchers have seen some microbes, bacteria and fungi slowly waking up. “That was amazing,” said Inagaki.   Scientists have found life in continental mines and boreholes more than three miles (five kilometers) deep, and have not yet identified the boundary where life no longer exists, he added.

           These microbes way underground are important, because they have captured huge amounts of carbon, leaving the oxygen we humans breathe.

           And perhaps they hold the key to removing the carbon spewed into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, causing climate change and global warming.