Friday, 29 March 2013

'Zombie microbes' may hold clues to origin of life

March 5, 2013
A dark realm far beneath the Earth's surface is a surprisingly rich home for tiny worms and "zombie microbes" that may hold clues to the origins of life, scientists said on Monday.

"It's an amazing new world," said Robert Hazen, head of the Deep Carbon Observatory, a decade-long $US500 million project to study the planet's carbon, an element vital to life and found in everything from oil to diamonds.

"It's very possible that there's a deep microbial biosphere that goes down more than 10 km (6 miles), maybe 20," Hazen told Reuters of the first book by the Observatory, published on Monday and written by more than 50 experts in nine countries.

Microbes had been reported, for instance, in rocks recovered by drilling more than 6 km below the surface in China's Songliao basin, he said. And tiny worms have been found in fractures in rocks 1.3 km deep in a South African mine.

The single-celled microbes found deep underground include bacteria, which need water and nutrients to grow but not necessarily oxygen, and archaea, which can live off compounds such as ammonia or sulphur.

A lack of food in what the 700-page report called the "Stygian realm" - after the River Styx of the underworld in Greek mythology - meant some microbes might be "zombies", or so slow-living as to seem dead.

The book, "Carbon in Earth", said some microbes may live deep below ground and grow and reproduce extremely slowly or perhaps even "live without dividing for millions to tens of millions of years".

Hazen, who works at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, said the scientists working on the project, which began in 2009, were also studying the possibility that life on Earth might have originated underground.

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