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Worms Science

'Worms From Hell' Unearth Possibilities For Extraterrestrial Life 145

Posted by Roblimo
from the it's-life-Jim-but-not-as-we-know-it dept.
An anonymously submitted article says, "For the first time, scientists have found complex, multi-celled creatures living a mile and more below the planet’s surface, raising new possibilities about the spread of life on Earth and potential subsurface life on other planets and moons (abstract). ... The research is likely to trigger scientific challenges and cause some controversy because it places far more complex life in an environment where researchers have generally held it should not, or even cannot, exist."
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'Worms From Hell' Unearth Possibilities For Extraterrestrial Life

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  • is it just me? (Score:4, Informative)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare@NOSpam.gmail.com> on Thursday June 02, 2011 @10:14AM (#36319788) Homepage Journal

    the link doesn't work

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 02, 2011 @10:17AM (#36319838)
    As a Wikipedia frequenter, I take the broken link as proof that there is no evidence.
  • by MMC Monster (602931) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @10:18AM (#36319844)

    It's not such a big deal. It's only a mile's commute to the nearest Starbucks.

  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @10:23AM (#36319968)
    Here [nature.com] is at least some information for it at Nature. Wherever there is some usable energy, some kind of life seems to attach to it. Fascinating.
    • by AmiMoJo (196126)

      I wonder if life could actually start in an environment like that, as opposed to starting in the oceans like it did on earth and then migrating downwards over millions of years. If life needs relatively hospitable conditions to start then we should not expect to find life on planets with only harsh environments.

      • by hitmark (640295)

        Now i am thinking about mind worms, for Alpha Centauri...

      • I wonder if life could actually start in an environment like that, as opposed to starting in the oceans like it did on earth and then migrating downwards over millions of years. If life needs relatively hospitable conditions to start then we should not expect to find life on planets with only harsh environments.

        This answers a different question - essentially "what are the (current) parameters for environmental conditions that allow life (as we know it)". We just kicked that can down the road a bit. Obviously, if lifeforms cannot survive in a particular environment it makes it unlikely that the started out in that environment but the converse isn't necessarily true. The planetary environment was markedly different when life started - warmer temperatures, little oxygen and just the fact that there weren't any oth

      • Don't see anything fundamentally against it. However, as the emergence of life seems to be a rather rare event, I still favor the oceans - more chemicals there, more energy. Everything going on in the deep biosphere is damn slow due to resource constraints. In my opinion, the chance for life emerging is still higher in the oceans.
    • Allow me to be the first to say it...

      It's life, Jim, but not as we know it.

  • by memojuez (910304) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @10:29AM (#36320064)

    More from the article: "The research is likely to trigger scientific challenges and cause some controversy because it places far more complex life in an environment where researchers have generally held it should not, or even cannot, exist."

    I thought they stopped saying that after finding life in the Challenger Deep [nationalgeographic.com] section of The Mariana Trench.

    • It's somewhat different, though - the deep sea regions still get a constant supply of nutrients that basically rain down from the more productive ocean layers. In the deep geosphere, all the worms can live off are lithotrophic bacteria that live from certain anorganic chemicals found down there. But yeah, in the end, not surprising - life seems always to find a way.
      • lithotrophic bacteria that live from certain anorganic chemicals found down there

        According to the team that found these nematodes (and the bacteria five years earlier), the bacteria lives off of radiation in the rocks, not chemistry. (Come back in a few years to see what eats the worms?)

        • by Intron (870560)

          lithotrophic bacteria that live from certain anorganic chemicals found down there

          According to the team that found these nematodes (and the bacteria five years earlier), the bacteria lives off of radiation in the rocks, not chemistry. (Come back in a few years to see what eats the worms?)

          Trapped miners?

  • Bless the maker and his water, bless the coming and going of him, may his passing cleanse the world.
    • Bless the maker and his water, bless the coming and going of him, may his passing cleanse the world.

      Not that kind of worm. This kind [imdb.com]. We have to wait a couple of million years until the planet dries up for the big ones. Oh, a FTL travel. And Spice.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The spice must flow...

    • Half a millimetre long. (The spice must trickle.)

      (About 1/50th of an inch, for the uneducated.)

      • by idontgno (624372)

        Sandtrout fry.

        If the scientists had been looking for it, they'd have seen a pre-spice mass among the rock strata there. Lucky they didn't use water in their drilling system.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    or at least a concrete donkey.

  • How many times now have we found life in extreme conditions where we were convinced life couldn't exist?

    And given that we believe life adapted to the environment on Earth (early organisms didn't even breathe oxygen) then why we are so convinced that theoretical life in the universe must conform to the rules on Earth?

    • Re:Rules for life (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @10:55AM (#36320412)
      I wouldn't say that we generally assume conditions to be necessarily earth-like for life to arise. However, there are hard constraints on conditions that allow complex chemistry to happen - and those limit the habitable range. Basically, the only reasonably complex chemistry happens with carbon - so you are automatically limited to conditions where carbon compounds are stable. That sets an upper bound for temperatures, for example. On the other hand, you want some reactivity - life has to be dynamic, after all. That gives you a lower bound for temperatures. Earth happens to be in the middle there, but there are quite some deviations from earth-like conditions where life would be possible, biochemically.
      • We're now seeing examples where DNA can be built using arsenic. The principle still applies that life on Earth is believed to be a response to the environment on Earth. Why wouldn't that be true elsewhere?

        Our entire precept of what is required for life to exist could be flawed based upon our limited perspective.

        • We're now seeing examples where DNA can be built using arsenic.

          We're now seeing examples where DNA can be contaminated with arsenic. Fixed that for ya,

        • Re:Rules for life (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @11:19AM (#36320736)
          The potentially arsenic-"based" bacteria are still carbon based. Only the phosphate links in the sugar-phosphate backbone of their DNA are possible replaced by arsenate links, possible the phosphates in their ATP or GTP, too. This is interesting, but not too surprising, as arsenic is chemically quite close to phosphorus.

          I am not arguing that earth-like conditions are a necessity, but that there are hard limits on conditions. If you want to have life you need a chemistry that is sufficiently complex to store information and to build structures. With that, you are down to carbon. Nothing else (with the very, very low possibility of silicon being an exception) makes a sufficiently complex chemistry. You need metabolism, so you need some kind of energy gradient and therefor chemical dynamics on a timescale that makes exploiting that gradient possible. Another hard limit. Those limits are not given by taking earth as a standard, this is basic thermodynamics, in the end.
      • by rubycodez (864176)
        utter rubbish, several atoms and also certain groups of atoms can form chained, non-linear complex structures, such as phosphazenes. Your carbon chauvinism based on sample size of one is showing.
        • Ah, ruby, polite as ever. Now please show me the functional diversity on phosphazenes, anything except being a base? And show me the stable phosphazenes without carbon based attachements. Also, show me a phophazene polymer that could be used for information storage. They are useful reagents, but making up a biochemistry on that basis? Highly doubtful.
          • by rubycodez (864176)
            see, there you go with your carbon chauvinism again, only knowing the organic nonlinear phosphazenes, while nonlinear inorganic ones such as with sulfur exist. Information storage can be a simple matter of substituting those "R"s the polymer chemists so love to put in their diagrams with some variety of other things. Worth mentioning too that many metal oxides can form nonlinear polymers including cyclical patterns. A life form based on such things might exist in conditions we would think of as totally
    • by dcollins (135727)

      "How many times now have we found life in extreme conditions where we were convinced life couldn't exist?"

      Approximately once per research facility on the cusp of closure.

  • by tsa (15680)

    Pity that the only picture available is some unclear SEM picture of the worm's head. Why not a picture of the whole animal? Now we still don't know what it looks like and how long it is.

    • by Intron (870560)

      The worm is now claiming that its twitter account was hacked and somebody else sent that picture. But it does admit that it really is that long.

    • by PitaBred (632671)

      Wired's article [wired.com] said 0.05cm. So half a millimeter. Can't really get a picture of that too easily. I mean, it's just a roundworm... it's not like it's that amazing unless you get up close.

    • TFA mentions that they grow to a third of an inch. Huge, no, multicellular yes.

  • by wcrowe (94389) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @11:27AM (#36320876)

    My question is this: just because you find life in extreme conditions, does not mean it can develop in those conditions. It seems more likely to me that life develops in more ideal conditions, then migrates to areas where conditions are more harsh. Am I being too skeptical or pessimistic?

    • by greymond (539980)

      I tend to agree with that thought. Looking at human history as an example, we have adapted to live in some very extreme conditions, albeit we often create artificial devices to do so, however, it still stands that we have found a way to live in both arctic climates as well as deserts and tropical forests for centuries. While animals don't have the mechanical capacity we do, life still adapts to new challenges and environmental changes.

    • But (unless I missed a memo) we actually don't know what conditions the first life formed in. Although we tend to focus on the ocean environment, it's entirely possible that the first cells formed in some more exotic deep crevise and only later migrated to the surface. In many ways, walking around in the open air makes *us* one of the most exotic extremophiles of the world.
      • But (unless I missed a memo) we actually don't know what conditions the first life formed in. Although we tend to focus on the ocean environment, it's entirely possible that the first cells formed in some more exotic deep crevise and only later migrated to the surface. In many ways, walking around in the open air makes *us* one of the most exotic extremophiles of the world.

        Here is one of the later memos [nih.gov]. Yes, the conditions on earth at the beginning of biogenesis (as opposed to the other Genesis) were very, very different that the current environment. We wouldn't like it at all. Many theories of biogenesis use solid phase chemicals (like various clays) as early catalysts and / or structural parts of the earliest life forms.

    • Many biological reactions at surface pressures and temperatures require catalysts called enzymes to proceed. Protein synthesis and the citric cycle are two basic examples. These do not require catalysts at high temperature and pressures according to work Robert Hazen of Carnegie Institute.

      After life began it evolved enzymes to expand into other ecological niches. For example, the ocean surface is an energy rich area with solar radiation.
    • by danlip (737336) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @12:02PM (#36321298)

      I agree with you, but this still has implications for the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Mars used to be much warmer and wetter, so it is possible that life developed under more ideal conditions and continued to survive under harsh conditions.

      But my doubts come because TFA says the worms were "found in water flowing from a borehole about one mile below the surface". That seems like plenty of opportunity for contamination. I'd be very skeptical that there are worms one mile below the surface of the earth in locations not touched by human activity. If you found them in a freshly drilled borehole with no water flowing that would be much more interesting.

      • > That seems like plenty of opportunity for contamination.

        By what route?

        • by danlip (737336)

          By the borehole, which sounds like it's been there for a while. By the water, which may be flowing into the borehole from the surface. By the humans, which from looking at the picture are gathering samples without wearing gloves or a mask, or at least are visiting the area without gloves and masks. I don't see any precautions against these.

      • A primary hurdle the team had to overcome was proving that the nematodes had not come into the mines on the shoes or clothing of miners or through mine ventilation water. The contamination issue was resolved through extensive testing of the soil and mining water, which contains two disinfectant bleaches that would kill nematodes.

    • by PitaBred (632671) <slashdot@NoSPaM.pitabred.dyndns.org> on Thursday June 02, 2011 @12:12PM (#36321408) Homepage

      Neither. You've just proposed a hypothesis. That's what all of science is about.

      Really, it's ok to say "we don't know". We can't say for sure if it developed down there or migrated. I doubt the scientists said anything to that effect, either. Or even if they did, most of them wouldn't. Science articles are typically rife with horribly inaccurate "paraphrasing" because the journalist doesn't know what they're talking about and try to translate scientific jargon to "layman" speak.

    • by gman003 (1693318)
      In principle, that seems plausible. Life could have migrated there, not evolved. That may be the case for the worms, but the bacteria they feed on seem different. Feeding off radiation in a high-pressure, anaerobic environment? That seems too big a difference to easily explain via evolution from aboveground organisms. I wouldn't rule that out as a possibility, but it still seems dubious.
    • by radtea (464814)

      It seems more likely to me that life develops in more ideal conditions, then migrates to areas where conditions are more harsh. Am I being too skeptical or pessimistic?

      It seems more likely to me that the Sun and planets move around the Earth.

      It seems more likely to me that the continents stay put.

      It seems more likely to me that humans were created by a conscious act of a supreme being rather than evolved by chance over billions of years.

      It seems to me that motion just naturally comes to rest after a time.

      It seems to me that if I spin around and throw something it will follow a curved path for a while before straightening out.

      It seems to me that people might have learned f

    • by argStyopa (232550)

      I don't think you're being skeptical, but too narrow-viewed.

      Earth may have served as an optimal place for life to develop in some areas, and then evolve to tolerate/inhabit less-optimal environs.

      That doesn't preclude the idea that the process took place one step earlier, either: that life getting to earth in the first place may have ALSO been a matter of it surviving inhospitable conditions until it reached a place where it could flourish.

      In fact, it suggests that (with the sample size of 1, of course) that

  • The research is likely to trigger scientific challenges and cause some controversy because it places far more complex life in an environment where researchers have generally held it should not, or even cannot, exist.

    If the critters have conclusively been found to live there, then people will just have to accept it, recalibrate their views on what's possible, and continue from there. Why the controversy?

  • Anything about locusts?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    tremors....

  • What's next? "Pigeons from Hell"?

  • Worms make the dirt
    And the dirt makes the earth
    And all of the roots have a place to sleep now
    All the chanuks have squash to eat now
    Worms make the dirt
    And the dirt makes the earth
    And people hold hands and feel terrific
    Food comes from dirt
    It's scientific
  • So the SNL parody about the movie titled "The Core" wasn't too far off.
  • If the Rossi/Focardi eCat (a claimed nickel-hydrogen LENR cold fusion device) really works, maybe cold fusion also happens at the boundary of the Earth's nickel-iron crust? And maybe the core even ejects neustrons, as suggested about the sun? And the end result might be abiotic oil and other "food" that could support an underground biosphere? Could life have even started down there (if bacteria did not come from beyond the solar system)? What other scientific dogma remains to be overturned? Related comment

  • I just thought I would mention Thomas Gold [wikipedia.org]'s book The Deep Hot Biosphere [barnesandnoble.com]. Gold's thesis is that "fossil fuels" aren't, and have an abiological origin, much like the hydrocarbons we can see in interstellar nebulae. An essential part of the theory is that "extremophiles" aren't all that rare, and permeate the earth down to unsuspected depths... that explains why the oil coming up out of the ground looks biological in origin (handedness): it's been messed with by the deep bacteria.

    So myself, what I learned

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