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Microbes Likely Abundant Hundreds of Meters Below Sea Floor

samzenpus posted about a year and a half ago | from the hollow-world dept.

Earth 68

sciencehabit writes "Samples drilled from 3.5-million-year-old seafloor rocks have yielded the strongest evidence yet that a variety of microorganisms live deeply buried within the ocean's crust. These microbes make their living by consuming methane and sulfate compounds dissolved in the mineral-rich waters flowing through the immense networks of fractures in the crust. The new find confirms that the ancient lavas formed at midocean ridges and found throughout deep ocean basins are by volume the largest ecosystem on Earth, scientists say."

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First life form (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43179719)

Maybe, could be the first life form!

Re:First life form (3, Insightful)

Fluffeh (1273756) | about a year and a half ago | (#43179787)

Possible, but more likely that it branched away from another more abundant form, filled a niche in and was pretty much forgotten about by everything else. Not to say that it couldn't well be an exceptionally early form that simply never changed.

Re:First life form (2)

Luckyo (1726890) | about a year and a half ago | (#43179955)

Latter option is pretty unlikely. Even microbes have their predators and parasites (usually in form of various viruses), so they have an arms race for survival of the fittest not that different from one we have here on the surface. It's highly unlikely for any single life form to survive billions of years largely unchanged by this process, as at some point your predators and parasites would optimize themselves to the level where you will get either wiped out entirely or severely weakened so that competing life forms will occupy your biological niche.

Re:First life form (2)

flayzernax (1060680) | about a year and a half ago | (#43179973)

Or occupy a niche that is bitchin hard for predators to get at you in.

Re:First life form (2)

tloh (451585) | about a year and a half ago | (#43179995)

I wish one of these bugs would occupy Wall Street. Now there is a place conspicuously lacking in any meaningful predation characteristic of a healthy ecosystem.

Re:First life form (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180091)

Yeah, and would be less smelly and dirty than the previous occupiers of Wall Street, and have more of a brain.

Re:First life form (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180007)

Predators or not, you still have to continuously compete with your not-quite-identical cousins for food and space. And predators can mostly adapt to more hostile environments just as quickly as you can, though you'll have a pretty firm grasp on the first-mover advantage since they don't get much advantage from being able to tolerate an environment not yet colonized by your oh-so-delicious family. Just don't stop evolving or they'll catch up...

Re:First life form (1)

Luckyo (1726890) | about a year and a half ago | (#43183527)

I don't think you understand how evolution works. The niche you mention does not exist, because predators exist in the same environment as you, and adapt alongside you.

That is why no matter the environment change or occupied biological niche, as long as it's survivable there will be those harvesting energy and materials from environment and those harvesting energy and materials from those who can harvest it from environment. That is essentially one of the main rules guiding the evolution on the planet.

This is why we're having more and more bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics that aren't lethal to humans. As we use more and more of such antibiotics, we're quickly changing the biological niche for bacteria that exist in humans. As a result, bacteria doesn't go away for long - instead it dies out for a short time to minimal amounts but quickly adapts (one hundred years is but a flash in terms of evolutionary process, the lake we're talking about is billions of years old) and continues to exist in hosts.

Re:First life form (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181691)

Possible

I'd say it's utterly impossible. The conditions billions of years ago were sufficiently different that the first fragile forms of life would be most likely unable to survive in today's world. They'd have to adapt, and then, by definition, they wouldn't be the first form of life anymore.

Re:First life form (5, Interesting)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year and a half ago | (#43179985)

Not even close. They may possess some similarities to the first cellular life forms which were almost certainly also chemovores (though likely lived in amino-acid rich muck on the bottom of shallow seas), but these organisms have been evolving for four billion years since then - they are every bit as evolved as humans, arguably far more so since their generations are so much shorter. They simply spent more time optimizing for a particular ecosystem niche whereas our ancestors kept changing directions dramatically. I mean come on - living in giant clonal colonies of billions of specialized individuals? Clearly a fad. It'll last a few billion years more, tops.

Re:First life form (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43182153)

More evolved than humans? You seem to equate generational longevity with evolving. I have yet to see bacteria build a radio. In fact, part of their early existence was to help shape, and be an tiny but important, part of higher forms of life, like mammals. Their true evolving is when they interact with other microbes to shape a more intelligent creature. That's evolving.

Re:First life form (0)

iggymanz (596061) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182431)

bullshit, that's just a multicellular-egocentric view of things. real evolution means fitness to survive as environment changes. look at how this largest part of the planet's ecosystem is impervious to drought, earthquake, extreme weather. even if man's weapons were to completely destroy all life on the surface and that swimmin in the seas, most life on earth would continue, and might even again spawn some multicellular throwbacks to live on the surface again.

Re:First life form (2)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year and a half ago | (#43183413)

In truth there are no "higher" life forms, just those more like us. Darwin himself took great pains to avoid concepts like "higher" or "lower", rather "suitability to environment" is the only meaningful yardstick, with adaptability being one factor in that when you consider the long-term.

Evolving doesn't imply any sort of direction, it's a path function. You could make a good argument for measuring it in terms of either gross or net changes from some historical reference point - in terms of a wiggly line on paper either the distance along the line or the distance between the endpoints. But to measure against some arbitrary characteristics that we possess is to draw a random straight line from the shared starting point and say "only distance in this direction matters", an extremely egocentric claim that would need some substantial justification. A perhaps more justifiable arbitrary line might be genome size, after all that's probably somewhat related to path length, and by that measure we're on par with corn, and have been beaten out by several other organisms, including I believe several bacteria and I think even some super-viruses.

I claim bacteria may be more evolved than us because each subsequent generation takes one step along that path, and bacteria have had thousands of times more generations than us in their history. Of course sexual reproduction allowed us to potentially take larger steps, but on the other hand bacteria still practice direct gene exchange so newly evolved "desirable" traits can potentially spread through the population in a single generation, and even between different species. And while I'm not certain as to the exact mechanism I would bet good money that there is some level of "choice" in gene transfer rather than being a purely random exchange (anyone with more definite knowledge care to chime in?), which would mean that synergistic gene combinations could reasonably be expected to accumulate far more rapidly - in essence they've been performing chimeric genetic engineering on themselves on a regular basis for four billion years, even if they're probably not too bright about it (on the other hand any incremental increase in the instinctual/chemical "intelligence" involved in the process would probably confer an *extreme* evolutionary advantage, so they might actually be incredibly "smart").

Re:First life form (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180563)

Naw, this is just where Hollywood keeps it's creativity now....

Re:First life form (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180737)

If people could keep their unwanted apostrophes down there it would be nice.

Re:First life form (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43181809)

I know, its really awful how their always using it incorrectly!

Re:First life form (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43186527)

You just wanted to say first post, you can admit that.

Europa (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180049)

This is good news for the potential of life on Europa. Since life is so abundant in these sun deprived areas on Earth, there is no reason why it couldn't be abundant in the same ways on Europa.

Re:Europa (4, Interesting)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180121)

Indeed. In fact sunlight was probably largely irrelevant to Earth life for most of the first billion or so years it existed. Prevailing opinion is now that chemical energy from hydrothermal vents was probably the primary "food" early on, then eventually perhaps each other. Which makes sense if you think about it - complex chemistry would probably find chemical energy far more accessible than capturing radiation. Photosynthesis doesn't appear to have really caught on until much later, with the evolution of chlorophyll likely causing the first mass extinction event as it flooded the seas and atmosphere with toxic oxygen.

Of course Europa is a much smaller petri dish than Earth, and less energetic, so I'd suspect life would evolve much more slowly. If we do find life there, and it's anything like us (DNA, etc), it might provide a fascinating glimpse into what primitive life on Earth may have be like. Everything here on Earth is the product of around 4 billion years of evolution.

Re:Europa (1)

Kreigaffe (765218) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180151)

All these worlds are yours except Europa

Re:Europa (2)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180371)

Shut your yap yah overgrown building block, I'd like to see you stop meEeep.

Re:Europa (1)

symbolset (646467) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180435)

attempt no landing there.

Re:Europa (1)

Forty Two Tenfold (1134125) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181151)

smaller petri dish than Earth, and less energetic

Not necessarily. Remember what powers Io's volcanoes?

Re:Europa (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182925)

True, but tidal forces are proportional to the gravitational gradient which falls off with the inverse cube. Since Europa is 60% farther from Jupiter, tidal forces will be only 24% as strong. Granted the "kneading" effect heats the mantle considerably more than the surface, but the fact that the surface is covered in probably miles of ice still suggests that the ambient energy levels are lower, at least as a first-order approximation.

Re:Europa (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181831)

In fact sunlight was probably largely irrelevant to Earth life for most of the first billion or so years it existed.

...unless you take into consideration it's effects on Earth's weather, like forming winds and keeping the temperature above the freezing point.

Re:Europa (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181837)

Crap! "its effects"! I thought only natives do these kinds of typos. It seems that even L2 people are not immune.

Re:Europa (1)

Cajun Hell (725246) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182287)

Their they're, yule be ok. Hay, at least you didn't write "it's affects."

FWIW I think anyone who lives at L2 [wikipedia.org] should be proud to be alive, much less immediately spot their typos. Just feeding yourself, trying to get space-crops to grow in the Earth's shadow, must be a lot of work. I wonder how you deal with that. Do you grow your food using some kind of chemical ener... HEY WAIT A MINUTE!

Dude, you just gave away that you're totally an expert at the very topic at hand. Quit pretending to be one of the people who asks questions like some kind of scientist, and start giving us the answers like the obvious space hydroponic chemo-agri technician that you obviously are.

Re:Europa (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182433)

You've just given the juxtaposition of "British English, American English, L2 English" a whole new meaning. Thank you very much, from now on I won't able to read a monograph or paper on second language acquisition without giggling.

Re:Europa (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43183533)

Not the L2 of Earth: The L2 of the Moon. Aliens must have set up a base there, where we can't see it from Earth! Maybe they're Europans?

CAPTCHA: Idiotic

Re:Europa (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180855)

I'm glad that's solved. So no need to go, right?

Hazen (5, Insightful)

CuteSteveJobs (1343851) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180101)

This isn't new: Recommend Professor Robert Hazen's book on the origins of life. He says no matter where you go on earth, deep into sea sediments or the rock of deep undergrounds mines, every cubic inch of the Earth is teaming with microbes. Worth noting the vast majority of them are indifferent to you. Even out of the ones that made their home on your body (for every cell on your body there are 10 bacteria along for the ride), the vast majority of those are indifferent or even beneficial. Only a tiny percentage are pathogenic, and often only when your immune defences are down. On the origins of life it isn't that it is hard to come up with an explanation, but instead there are so many plausible theories they don't know which one it might have been. It may be far easier for life to get started than we like to think. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-Origins-of-Life.html [smithsonianmag.com]

Re:Hazen (0)

gagol (583737) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180111)

+1 insightful, please, i am out of points.

Re:Hazen (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180131)

He says no matter where you go on earth, deep into sea sediments or the rock of deep undergrounds mines, every cubic inch of the Earth is teaming with microbes.

What about in the outer core? How do the microbes survive in liquid iron?

Oh, you just meant in the crust, right? So finding life hundreds of meters below the surface in the crust might actually be a surprise? 6371 km deep, there is no life. 0 km deep there is a lot of life. The question is how deep life can survive (between 0 and 6371 km). Now we know it can survive hundreds of meters below the surface in cracked rocks. Can it survive deeper than this? It certainly can't survive down to the core, so there must be some interface boundary where even the most extreme of extremophiles won't survive. That is the point, and that is why this finding is new.

Re:Hazen (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180275)

Hey I know that lava crabs and the clown brigade live deep down below the core. http://dwarffortresswiki.org/index.php/Hidden_fun_stuff [dwarffortresswiki.org]

Also the core is were Zion is in the Matrix series.

Re:Hazen (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180329)

I never understood that. Why did they have strong gravity down there? Didn't the Wachowski siblings know about Gauss's Law?

Re:Hazen (1)

Dr_Barnowl (709838) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181181)

They were clearly just deep in the crust. Not only would the core still be too hot for life, even thousands of years after the 21st century, without a temperature differential they can't harvest the geothermal power for their systems ; ergo, they need to be close enough to the cold surface.

Re:Hazen (1)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180467)

There's no reason to believe that life couldn't exist in the earths core. It wouldn't be anything we'd recognize, but the fact that we have recognizable bacteria practically living on the edge of lava vents in the ocean should give you a clue. It'd be a stretch but no-where near as impossible as you're making it seem.

Re:Hazen (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180727)

Non-water based, probably not carbon-based, the temperature would destroy any complex organic molecules...hard to imagine...

Re:Hazen (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43182041)

organic life can only exist in places where organic molecules can exist. The Earth's core is far to hot and high pressure for that (anything made out of carbon will end up as a diamond before they got all the way to the center). Claiming that life could adapt to that is making the same mistake as claiming that you can build a space elevator out of brick. You're completely ignoring the fundamental limitations of your materials.

There has been speculation that silicon could substitute for carbon in organic molecules and such a structure would need higher temperatures and pressure to exist. But that's only theoretical and the exact temperature range probably doesn't match the Earth's core. Plus we'd never be able to go see them on account of bing made of carbon (remember the diamond thing?)

Re:Hazen (1)

jadv (1437949) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182997)

So the question still stands: At some point there will be a "dead man's border" beyond which no living thing can be found. But so far, nobody has any idea how far down that border is, and for all we know it may be changing over time, as microbes evolve and new species appear with just a teeny little bit more resistance to extreme temperatures, pressure and chemically aggressive environments.

Re:Hazen (1)

jafac (1449) | about a year and a half ago | (#43184415)

Well; the thing is - are these chemovores, even a legitimate "part" of OUR biosphere? They are fairly isolated. One could consider them a separate biosphere. Unless there are life forms that eat both chemovores, and photosynthetic creatures (and maybe there are decomposers that DO that). (this becomes like the "is Pluto a Planet" argument).

But I think that once you get down far enough into the crust, the specialization required to survive those temperatures and pressures is going to yield life that's unquestionably isolated - which does NOT interact with our biosphere at all. Different chemistries, different genetics - maybe mechanisms of inheritance unrelated to our genetics.

. . . and speculating further, there may be biospheres still deeper, that are not carbon based. (maybe silicon-based). Personally, I think this is very unlikely. I also think that even if they do exist, it would be almost impossible to ever discover them. Maybe someday we might find evidence of them. But if we did - the implication is that perhaps - chemistry and heat begets life. Chemistry comes from the simple diversity of elements in the remnants of stellar supernovae. Heat comes from gravity (pressure). So this implies that every large-enough rock floating out there. . . (what did they say? at least 100,000,000 in this galaxy?) . . . may have evolved some form of thermal/silicon-based subterranean life - independent of whether or not the SURFACE CONDITIONS are inhabitable to us. Planets stay hot for billions and billions of years, so this life has time to evolve, as well. (though, they may not ever figure out how to venture into space). - but think about the potential amount of life that this implies.

If we discover them on Earth, we most certainly are compelled to look for them on other worlds, circling other stars. I think it's imperative.

Re:Hazen (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181521)

Can it survive deeper than this?

Sure, at least a few km. (a link for you [kenyon.edu] )

Re:Hazen (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180343)

He says no matter where you go on earth, deep into sea sediments or the rock of deep undergrounds mines, every cubic inch of the Earth is teaming with microbes.

Yesh, but saying it and actually demonstrating it using samples are two entirely different things. That still makes it pretty much new.

Re:Hazen (2)

symbolset (646467) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180451)

There is no place on Earth, no matter how high, how cold, how deep, how hot that we have not found life there - but for the content and surface of lava. Life is pernicious and persistent. It is a weed.

Re:Hazen (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180725)

The numbers make human life rather trivial. It seems that microbes break down rock into soil that provides life for creatures on the surface and when we look at those creatures that live on the surface the numbers again point out that tiny life forms dominate everything. It is like fleas wagging the dog.

Re:Hazen (2)

Rogerborg (306625) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180853)

Can't eat them, talk to them or screw them, so I'm vastly indifferent to them too.

Re:Hazen (1)

flyingfsck (986395) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182735)

Until they invade your body and make you ill...

2001 (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180117)

"My God, it's full of microbes!"

-MiniDave

Re:2001 (1)

crutchy (1949900) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180133)

the titanic was carrying a monolith... or the titanic was a monolith

Re:2001 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180207)

The drillers reported hearing voices over their radio gear but it was merely gibberish about "ugly bags of mostly water"

The take away from all these stories (2, Insightful)

Grayhand (2610049) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180119)

On Earth where ever life can survive it does and generally thrives. It just proves how tenacious and adaptable life is in the Universe. There are only really two options, life is an unlikely fluke or it's everywhere it can possibly exist. Life may be more pervasive than anyone thought possible. The dogma has been that where life is possible it's still rare but the more likely truth is systems where like can exist but doesn't may be the rare exceptions.

Re:The take away from all these stories (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181459)

On Earth where ever life can survive it does and generally thrives. It just proves how tenacious and adaptable life is in the Universe. There are only really two options, life is an unlikely fluke or it's everywhere it can possibly exist.

It's not impossible for life to be both - an unlikely fluke *and* everywhere it can possibly exist. It's the adaptability of life that's the key, currently extremophiles on Earth are believed to have arisen someplace benign (I.E. where it's easy for life-the-fluke to take root) and then migrated and evolved into the extreme niches.

James Cameron (1)

dohzer (867770) | about a year and a half ago | (#43180475)

So now we've got to send James Cameron hundreds of metres BELOW the bottom of the ocean to investigate?
Take it easy guys; his body can only take so much!

Re:James Cameron (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180651)

And yet our attempts to get rid of him have thus far failed.

Re:James Cameron (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180987)

He says his body is ready.

Fascinating stuff (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180719)

I think that it's quite likely that this situation, of life being pretty much everywhere, is the case for the rest of the universe. There's probably life like this on any planet that's got the energy and chemicals to sustain these complex organisms. I wonder how the "colonize the universe" crowd feels about that, what gives them the right to decide that a planet should now be full of people rather than leaving it be to evolve on its own.

If they can answer that, why can't I use the same answer to support human life extension right here?

Re:Fascinating stuff (1)

lxs (131946) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181519)

I wonder how the "colonize the universe" crowd feels about that, what gives them the right to decide that a planet should now be full of people rather than leaving it be to evolve on its own.

What gives us the right? Survival of the fittest. All life is created equal and that includes carbon based bipeds with spaceships. Add to that my personal conviction that undirected panspermia is a contributing force to the spread of life in the Universe and I see no objection to adding a little directed panspermia of our own in the mix.

Re:Fascinating stuff (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43182863)

Because fuck other life forms? Maybe? We're humans, and humans are what should matter most to us.

Re:Fascinating stuff (1)

lxs (131946) | about a year and a half ago | (#43183795)

We're animals, so we do what animals do. Feed and procreate. It's our biological imperative. There is no shame in this. The Universe will keep on ticking along just fine. Thinking that we have to care for every creature that crosses our path implies that we are somehow superior. That we know best. It is an arrogance I don't subscribe to.

Effects of AGW? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43180941)

Has anyone studied the disastrous effects that manmade global warming is causing to this priceless and fragile ecosystem?

This is just further evidence... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43181755)

That we are going to have to disinfect the HELL out of this planet before we leave. Otherwise, we'll lose our security deposit, big time.

Seriously, Biosphere... you get this stuff everywhere.

this has been known for decades (1)

peter303 (12292) | about a year and a half ago | (#43181799)

Life has been everywhere drilled into sediments or rock as long it is below 120C temperature.

Re:this has been known for decades (1)

iggymanz (596061) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182365)

no, the massiveness of this part of the biosphere is what was not known. those samples from the past were viewed as a tiny niche ecology. now we find it may be the main one of this planet

It's where oil comes from (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43182413)

Or do you really think petroleum comes from dead dinosaurs?

Yup (1)

TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) | about a year and a half ago | (#43182957)

We already know there is life on this planet, stop looking.

Deep Hot Biosphere (1)

RackinFrackin (152232) | about a year and a half ago | (#43183741)

Thomas Gold [wikipedia.org] wrote a book [amazon.com] that seems very pertinent to this.

Two Words: Thomas Gold (1)

fygment (444210) | about a year and a half ago | (#43187849)

He and others have theorised, spoken to, and proven this over and over again over the past several decades.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Gold [wikipedia.org]

Also his book: Deep Hot Biosphere and paper of same title (http://www.pnas.org/content/89/13/6045.full.pdf+html)

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