Scientists On The Hunt For Microbial Life In Deep Earth Rocks
December 10, 2013

Scientists On The Hunt For Microbial Life In Deep Earth Rocks

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Digging deep into the Earth's surface and collecting census data on the microbial denizens of the hardened rocks, scientists are finding that these communities are quite similar, even when miles deep and halfway across the planet from each other.

The findings, presented at the American Geophysical Union Conference by Matthew Schrenk, Michigan State University geomicrobiologist, suggest that these communities might be connected.

“Two years ago we had a scant idea about what microbes are present in subsurface rocks or what they eat,” he said. “We’re now getting this emerging picture not only of what sort of organisms are found in these systems but some consistency between sites globally – we’re seeing the same types of organisms everywhere we look.”

The research team studied samples from deep underground in California, Finland and mine shafts located in South Africa. They also collected microbe samples from the deepest hydrothermal vents in the Caribbean Ocean.

“It’s easy to understand how birds or fish might be similar oceans apart,” Schrenk said. “But it challenges the imagination to think of nearly identical microbes [10,000 miles] apart from each other in the cracks of hard rock at extreme depths, pressures and temperatures.”

This region is a relatively unknown biome. Cataloging and exploring it could lead to breakthroughs in offsetting climate change, the discovery of new enzymes and processes that may be useful for biofuel and biotechnology research, he added.

Schrenk intends to focus his future efforts on unlocking answers to what carbon sources the microbes use, how they cope in such extreme conditions as well as how their enzymes evolved to function so deep underground.

“Integrating this region into existing models of global biogeochemistry and gaining better understanding into how deep rock-hosted organisms contribute or mitigate greenhouse gases could help us unlock puzzles surrounding modern-day Earth, ancient Earth and even other planets,” Schrenk said.

Collecting and comparing microbiological and geochemical data across continents is made possible through the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), which also funded the project. Scientists from across disciplines have used the DCO to better understand and describe these phenomenon, according to Schrenk.