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Life Confirmed At Extreme Depths 273

SEWilco writes "A few years ago the life forms around deep-ocean thermal vents were a surprise. Now ancient bacteria alive in rock 2 miles down have been found. The story is in the San Francisco Chronicle. It is also at Nature.Com, but that server is already rejecting connects. Other bacteria survived frozen in the pressures of an ocean 100 miles deep. This increases the known limits of where life can exist on any planet. Thomas Gold undoubtedly is not surprised at hot, deep bacteria living on hydrogen."
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Life Confirmed At Extreme Depths

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  • Life (Score:5, Funny)

    by Violet Null ( 452694 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:05PM (#4848203)
    It is also at Nature.Com, but that server is already rejecting connects.

    Life always finds a way to survive. Now, evolution has provided us with a website that can anticipate and avoid the slashdot effect.
    • Whatever Jurassic Park...
    • Is it just me, or did anyone else click on the Nature.Com link first?
    • Re:Life (Score:3, Interesting)

      In a previous article, they said microorganisms could last up to a million years deep inside an asteroid.

      Is it so hard to believe there's life at the bottom of the sea?
  • 100 miles deep?! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by roseblood ( 631824 )
    "Other bacteria survived frozen in the pressures of an ocean 100 miles deep. "

    Where on earth is there a 100 mile deep ocean? Is our atmosphere even 100 miles deep?
    • I couldn't find any 100 mile deep ocean, but I guess our atmosphere [] is about 300 feet deep.
      • Christ. 300 MILES. Damned submit and preview buttons are too close for my taste.
      • Re:100 miles deep?! (Score:2, Informative)

        by Lasalas ( 628720 )
        The deepest point the ocean is currently Challenger Deep, Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean at 35,840 feet / 10,924 meters. Our atmosphere extends out for millions of miles. there is no actual boundary, just the usual point where the atmosphere turns from earths gases, eventually thinning out into space. (the Exosphere, our highest level ot atmosphere is 700-800 km / 434-497 miles). /factoids
  • by KarMannJRO ( 616677 ) <jowens@slashdot.ghiapet@homeip@net> on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:07PM (#4848219) Homepage

    OK, before we all jump on that "ocean 100 miles deep" claim (as I was about to do), here's the actual quote from the article:

    Other bacteria, frozen into chunks of ice in a Washington laboratory, have thrived inside a high-pressure container and went right on reproducing after they were exposed to pressures equivalent to life at the bottom of an ocean 100 miles deep.

    So they aren't really claiming to have found oceans 100 miles deep.

    • by John Penix ( 562591 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:14PM (#4848338) Homepage
      It's important to note btw, for those who haven't caught this detail, that the subterranean bacteria in question derive energy from chemicals (chemosynthesis) rather than from sunglight (photosynthesis). This discovery in itself was breathtaking, as it means that we might have a way of "farming" even if the sky is blotted out for years, i.e. nuclear winter or ELE (extinction event like comet impact).
        • Does someone have a better understanding of this?

          The image on calls C6H12O6 (glucose, dextrose, and fructose all have this composition) a carbohydrate for photosynthesis, but on the chemosynthesis side it calls CH2O (aka formaldehyde) a carbohydrate. Last I checked formaldehyde and glucose had very different effects on most life forms.
          • As far as I know any molecule with carbon (C) and hydrate (H2O) groups is a carbohydrate. It's a rather large family.
          • "CH2O" was a common shorthand for "carbohydrate" many years ago-- I expect that is still the case.

            All carbohydrates, by definition, have a basic ratio of one part carbon to two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

          • Carbohydrates are technically all compounds with the formula Cx H2y Oy; they have hydrogen and oxygen in a 2:1 ratio, plus carbon ("hydrates of carbon", get it?).

            Glucose and formaldehyde are both technically carbohydrates, but calling formaldehyde a carbohydrate is a bit like calling a tomato a fruit. Scientifically, a tomato is a fruit, but in the real world it's a vegetable. Similiarly, carbohydrate normally refers to carbohydrate compounds with at least 4-5 carbon atoms. This includes pentoses (ribose, found in RNA), hexoses (glucose, fructose etc.) all the way up to starch and cellulose, which are polymers of hexoses.

      • More subterranean bacteria au gratin, honey?

        Yes, Please!
        • by l810c ( 551591 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @08:55PM (#4849437)
          Bubba: "Anyway, like I was sayin', subterranean bacteria is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sautee it. Dey's uh, subterranean bacteria-kabobs, subterranean bacteria creole, subterranean bacteria gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple subterranean bacteria, lemon subterranean bacteria, coconut subterranean bacteria, pepper subterranean bacteria, subterranean bacteria soup, subterranean bacteria stew, subterranean bacteria salad, subterranean bacteria and potatoes, subterranean bacteria burger, subterranean bacteria sandwich. That- that's about it."
      • Important in what sense?

        Firstly, even an ELE wouldn't blot out the sun COMPLETELY. Secondly, it would only do so for a relatively short period of time - after a century at most, photodensity at the equator would be up to 50% of present levels (enough to farm algae.)

        Now, it is true that these chemosynthetic bacteria are a sustainable source of calories, and probably convert geothermal energy (which is where the chemicals they eat come from, in an eventual sense) to sugar at a more efficient rate than a geothermal powerplant could. So, if the earth were ripped from the sun, you might be reduced to this as an option.

        However, the industrial costs to recover the buggers would be fucking immense! The technology required simply to break even on drilling up all that rock - I don't want to go there. The geysers at yellowstone don't produce surplus calories to feed very many people.

        We'd be better off stockpiling glucose, or making it chemically from energy produced by nuclear / petrochemical reactors.

        Secondly, in either event, write off 99.95% of the human race. Waive, chilren.

        In the event of an ELE, the remnant of the human race can live on stored food, or on truly synthetic nutrients (eating electricity is what this amounts too) until the particulate level drops enough to begin farming again, less than a century if you're willing to live on strained algae.

        In the event of a nuclear winter, same story except your "farms" have to be enclosed to prevent the crops from being irradiated, and they have to be on land. If the rest of the world is tenderly merciful with Australia you might be able to grow food outdoors pretty quickly, mate.

        Sundry #1)
        Most of these bacteria are archaebacteria. They come from the SAME great lineage of life (there are two - archaea and eubacteria) as we do, or at least as our cellular DNA. These deep dwelling bacteria are more closely related to you or I than they are to the bacteria with which most of us are familiar in our day to day lives. That's not very close - still about a billion years, give or take.

        Sundry #2)
        This means that although these bacteria dwell deep beneath the earth, and may very well out-mass all terrestrial life, they are DESCENDED from shallow-water dwelling organisms, just like we are. Life could adapt and survive beneath the crust of IO, but that does NOT mean that it could ARISE there.

        Sundry #3)
        The pressure-survivability of bacteria is a cute trick that should surprise no-one. Bacteria are just soap bubbles full of protein. Extremely TINY soap bubbles. There are three ways to kill them:
        1) Pop the soap bubble. Heat can do this, or sound waves, but not pressure the likes of which can be found on earth; the soap bubble is elastic. This doesn't mean the bacteria can BREED under very high pressures (though some can) merely that high pressure won't kill them.
        2) Crunch up the protein. Proteins are just chemicals, so again, heat can destroy them, but pressure can't; extremely high pressure might cause lethal aggregation of proteins but evidently it doesn't. Enough TIME will ruin the proteins.
        3) Crunch up the DNA. Heat, not pressure! Vibration can do this as well. Mostly, time can be a culprit here.

        So, a bacteria might survive the high pressures of being embedded inside a piece of precambrian rock, unable to reproduce. However, TIME, by way of random chemical events, would destroy the DNA inside the bacteria.

        The DNA inside of any bacteria able to reproduce is maintained by evolution - but that which maintains it also changes it.

        The upshot - it is impossible to recover DNA from an organism that lived millions of years ago. Sorry.
  • Ack, another one... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cornjchob ( 514035 ) <> on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:07PM (#4848220)
    OK, let me get this out right now: OK, we have life way way down in our earth. That only proves that life as we know it can exist in that extreme of an environment. Comparing that to other planet's life forms or using that as evidence to further any point of extra terrestrial life is very much redundant; life elsewhere could be (and probably is) completely different from ours. Maybe no DNA. maybe no amino acids. Maybe their amino acids are left handed, who knows. But point being: this proves nothing that wasn't proven to any thinking person before.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      this proves nothing that wasn't proven to any thinking person before.

      Except, of course, that life has been found so deep in the earth.
    • by bahwi ( 43111 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:16PM (#4848358)
      Thank you. I'm glad someone said it! I think the big question should be did the life form down there in that extreme, or did it form up here in what we consider 'habitable' and evolve to survive down at those depths? I'm pretty sure the answer is that life formed in more what we consider to be 'habitable' and did not form down there, but I think it should also be studied so we know for sure. If we could prove that life could form in those circumstances. I think that would change some thinking.

      Than again, I'm not a biologist (IANAB) nor do I keep up with the news and happenings, although I agree this is definately nerd news. =)

    • Maybe their amino acids are left handed, who knows.

      For the record, I like your comment, but I have one little nitpick.

      Amino acids are left handed. DNA helices (the natural, common forms) are right handed.

    • Maybe their amino acids are left handed

      Only on 1 planet in nine...

      If life as we know it can exist in harsh conditions, then it means that life (as we know it) could exist on a planet (with similar conditions).

      P.S. how do you define life?
    • Maybe their amino acids are left handed

      Sounds reasonable: all of ours but one are. That one was either right-handed or achiral, I can't remember which.
  • How low? (Score:3, Funny)

    by r_j_prahad ( 309298 ) <[r_j_prahad] [at] []> on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:09PM (#4848253)
    "Life Confirmed At Extreme Depths"

    For some reason I thought this story was going to be about Slashdot.
  • Life can be hardy... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by acehole ( 174372 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:09PM (#4848259) Homepage

    It's amazing how basic lifeforms can adapt and evolve to thier surroundings. There is also a small cave in the area around the arctic that scientists found that was esentially a bubble inside solid rock, it was found by accident.

    It had inside it a small ecosystem with insect life that had evolved completely isolated from the outside world. None of the species had eyes because of the pitch black inside the bubble. Nor did they have any coloring at all, they were all translucent. Unfortunatly I only saw this on a documentry, but the transcript is online.

    Link is here []
    • You obviously didn't read the story you linked to. If you had, you would have seen:
      NARRATOR: For biologists the challenge is how to study this lost world. They need samples to analyse, but there are no samples from Lake Vostok, so they can only speculate about what happened to the life after the lake iced over.

      CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: The plants would have disappeared very quickly and once the plants went you lost a major source of food supply for the more complex animals, so once, the plants would disappear the, the animals would follow soon after and once they were gone all that would be left in the lake would be the microbial populations and even they would then start to thin down to the organisms that could make the best of the limited resources left.

      NARRATOR: So if anything has survived in Lake Vostok it will be microbes.

      Summary for the facts, for those who don't remember this from the last time it popped up on Slashdot:

      There is a large lake under the Antarctic icepack. There is considerable debate on whether to drill through 4 miles of ice to get samples of the ancient water, and possibly find ancient bacteria. The anti-drilling side points out that any drilling raises the possibility of contamination with modern bacteria.

      • Perhaps *you* should have read the article a bit more, I never said it was in Lake Vostok, read a little further into the article and you would see:

        DR SERBAN SARBU (Cave Biologist): We very soon realised that in fact this cave had never had an entrance, a natural entrance, was never opened to the surface and this artificial shaft that we descended was the only possible access into the system.

        NARRATOR: It was like a bubble trapped in rock. Until it was broken into nothing from the surface had got into it, perhaps for millions of years. What they had found was a world as dark and isolated as Lake Vostok. To begin with they found nothing out of the ordinary, just a series of cramped tunnels. But when they arrived at a small pool there was a surprise in store for them.

        SERBAN SARBU: The first surprise that I experienced was that we found a lot of animals present and when I say animals I think of spiders, centipedes, wood lice.

        It wasnt in Vostok, it was in Romania.

        • Romania is a long way from the Arctic.

          Cave critters without eyes are not new. The new thing in this was that there were hydrogen sulfide eating bacteria which formed the base of the food chain.

          NARRATOR: Serban thought that the layer of scum must hold the key to the cave's ecosystem. Eventually he realised that it was made up of microbes. The scum was a thick microbial mat. This was the base of the food chain, but what were the microbes living on? When Serban analysed the microbes, he discovered that in the absence of sunlight they were using hydrogen sulphide as their energy source. The microbes were extracting energy from chemicals in the water. It's a process known as chemosynthesis The water in the cave is rich in hydrogen sulphide which comes from hot springs welling up from deep within the Earth.
          Pity you didn't put that in your original post. It would have been quite interesting. Consider this: the same article has speculation that Lake Vostak may have been a rift valley. That might imply the same sort of hot springs which made the ecosystem in Romania possible.

          So you read the article, but didn't summarize it well enough for me to be able to tell what your point was. Sorry for the unjustified criticism.

    • I read the article, and it flashed back a memory from a book I read long ago.

      Am I the only one that sees the link between that bbc article and Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness?

      Giant cavity beneath ice in the middle of antarctica, surrounded by mountain ranges, and previously unknown lifeforms, millions of years old, evolved separately from the life on the rest of the planet. How long until we meet the Elders?
      I recommend the book to everyone, really good one.

  • Other bacteria survived frozen in the pressures of an ocean 100 miles deep

    I was under the impression that the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas trench in the Pacific ocean was 'only' 11033 metres below sea level; rougly 6-7 miles deep..Nowhere near the 100 miles in this writeup. Was this explained better in the article?
    • by ultramk ( 470198 ) < minus threevowels> on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:16PM (#4848365)
      Uh, RTFA?

      -- Other bacteria, frozen into chunks of ice in a Washington laboratory, have thrived inside a high-pressure container and went right on reproducing after they were exposed to pressures equivalent to life at the bottom of an ocean 100 miles deep.

      Oh, right. Forgot that no one reads the article anymore...

      • Oh, right. Forgot that no one reads the article anymore...

        Well, it would be easy to RTFA if Slashdot wouldn't absolutely destroy any chance of actually READING the article. Therefore, I had two options, comment on the submission text or wait for someone to post the text of the original article. Guess what? I went with the submission text because I (incorrectly) assumed that the submitter had done some basic fact-checking before it had been submitted.

        Please, PLEASE submitters....I know you get excited when you come across an article you can submit to Slashdot, but please take the time to actually fact-check your submission. In all likelihood, the page/server it's hosted on will disappear within 5 minutes of being posted.
  • Next... (Score:1, Funny)

    now maybe they'll find life on uranus...

    ok, not funny, but it had to be said.

    truly amazing. next thing you know, they will discover a silicon based life form (besides pamala anderson), and call in mulder and scully...wait...i already saw that episode...

  • by mao che minh ( 611166 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:13PM (#4848318) Journal
    This means that life as we know it has an even greater potential to be living in some of the extreme enviornments found on nearby planets. Not so much a tie-in or comparison to possible life elsewhere in the universe as it is a statement that Earth life and life like it is proven to be this much more resilient.
    • What's important to remember here is that there is a difference between being able to survive and being able to form. Sure, life can adapt to living in extreme environments, but I doubt very much that these environments are condusive to forming an actual life form.
  • by bpd1069 ( 57573 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:13PM (#4848320) Homepage
    No this isn't flamebait...

    Humans (which I am one) tend to view the world through a very narrow perspective. We see things on the terms which we live within. Our existance is within a small thin band of possible environments.

    I mean does anyone seriously think that all that oil in the ground came from prehistoric vegetation?? This rock we call home is literally infested with life to the core (well to the mantle atleast).

    With this new realization, is there any doubt that there exists life on other planets?
    • by MacAndrew ( 463832 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:26PM (#4848481) Homepage
      Humans (which I am one)

      You KNOW you're hanging out at the wrong forum when someone has to preface their comment with THAT.
    • With this new realization, is there any doubt that there exists life on other planets?

      Yes, there is still plenty of doubt. Nothing about this suggests an extraterestrial origin of any life that has been found. We just don't know if there was some unique accident that started it all, or if the earth was infected from an outside source.

      It is an interesting data point, and it certainly is suggestive, particularly if we don't find any variety of simple life forms in any of the "extreme" environments in the solar system. Logically, the emergence of life is a pretty amazing thing, and I wouldn't believe it was even possible if we, ourselves, were not an existence proof.

      On the level of pure speculation, it seems awefully strange for the origin of life to be a unique event in the universe, so either we are not alone, or there is some sort of multi-worlds thing going on and we are in one of the lucky worlds where life got started.

      Of course, the other problem in trying to meet the neighbors is that they might be so out of scale with us that we wouldn't know they exist even of we overlapped in physical range.

  • Not news... (Score:2, Funny)

    by YahoKa ( 577942 )
    I am alive in the piles miles and miles deep of dirty clothes and dishes in my room...
  • I thought this... (Score:2, Redundant)

    by craenor ( 623901 )
    Was talking about life being found at /.

    Then I realized they weren't talking about depths of depravity...oh well.
  • As alluded to in Thomas Gold's report from 1992, bacteria are very commonly found at extreme depths in the earth, by oil drilling operations. As has been the case for several years.

    I think the most news worth portion of this article is the fact that this guy has acquired a multimillion dollar NASA grant, not that he has found anything new.
  • by nekdut ( 74793 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:19PM (#4848392) Journal
    American Geophysical Union Meeting,
    San Francisco, December, 2002

    Goldmine yields clues for life on Mars
    Radioactive bacteria live deep in the Earth - and maybe elsewhere.
    9 December 2002

    Mine dwelling bacteria may be similar to the first life on Earth
    © GettyImages

    There are tiny creatures living off radiation in ancient pockets of water several kilometres beneath the Earth's surface, say researchers.

    The microbes seem to have been isolated for hundreds of millions of years. Similar conditions might exist beneath the surface of Mars.

    "Anywhere you have a crust with uranium and water in it, you have the potential for life," microbiologist Tullis Onstott, of Princeton University, New Jersey, told this week's American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

    As you go deeper, the chemicals essential for normal life - organic matter and oxygen - disappear. And you get crushed and cooked, as temperature and pressure rise.

    Microbes have been found a kilometre or so beneath the Earth's surface before. But cost and contamination with shallower bugs have hindered scientists looking deeper for life.

    Working with miners in the world's deepest holes - 3.5 kilometre-deep South African goldmines - Onstott and his colleagues found hot water rich in bacteria.

    The water is loaded with dissolved hydrogen gas, at a concentration up to a hundred million times higher than normal. Radioactive isotopes in the water show that the gas could only have formed by radioactive energy from surrounding uranium deposits splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen, argues Onstott.

    Researchers had speculated that bacteria might make hydrogen in this way, but it has never been seen before. "It's a completely novel system for supporting life," says John Baross, who studies deep-sea bacteria at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    The mine-dwelling bacteria are hard to grow in the lab. Genetic evidence suggests that some of the microbes are related to a species called Pyrococcus abyssi, which lives in hot, deep-sea vents.

    These bacteria are thought to be similar to the first life on Earth. They use hydrogen and sulphur to survive without oxygen.

    Other genetic sequences of microbes in the mine water are unlike those of any other species. Onstott says that he would not be surprised if the mine contained new species with new types of metabolism.

    Radioactive dating by Onstott's colleagues suggests that some pockets of mine water have been isolated for several hundred million years. "The dinosaurs came and went while this water has been down there," he says.

    If the microbes can be grown and their workings probed, they should provide new insights into primitive life, Baross adds.

    Missions to Mars could look for life by sniffing for hydrogen seeping up from deep in the planet's crust, says Onstott. Mars has some water and uranium, although less than Earth.

    © Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2002
  • by RobertB-DC ( 622190 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:20PM (#4848397) Homepage Journal
    Didn't they make a movie (or ten, plus a few X-Files episodes) about this:

    The food supply is so sparse that the bugs reproduce maybe only once in a thousand, or perhaps even a million years. That means organisms the scientists are seeing today have had little opportunity to change since the earliest history of life on earth.

    Allow me to be the first to put a paranoid spin on the whole issue... where a microbe has lain nearly dormant for 65 million years, living on the odd hydrogen atom, patiently waiting for its chance to do for humankind what it did for the dinosaurs. Nobody is safe this time!

    Ok, now that I've exercised my paranoia... I'll calm myself with the knowledge that any bug that has evolved to metabolize the odd hydrogen atom would probably burn up (metabolically speaking) in a highly corrosive atmosphere, such as one containing a whopping 20% oxygen.
    • > > "The food supply is so sparse that the bugs reproduce maybe only once in a thousand, or perhaps even a million years. That means organisms the scientists are seeing today have had little opportunity to change since the earliest history of life on earth."
      > Allow me to be the first to put a paranoid spin on the whole issue... where a microbe has lain nearly dormant for 65 million years, living on the odd hydrogen atom, patiently waiting for its chance to do for humankind what it did for the dinosaurs. Nobody is safe this time!

      Awright, so it's more like the Deep Hot Slow Biosphere :-)

      I find the idea of an cell that divides on such a long timeframe fascinating - how the hell does it store its chemical/energy supply and keep it stable for so damn long before finally having "enough" to do cell division? (or budding?)

      Any bio geeks now how these things actually reproduce? (I'm imagining a rock-ful of these would show them in various stages of division. Or does the reproduction actually proceed quickly, relying on a 1000-year accumulated store of energy?)

  • by Rayonic ( 462789 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:21PM (#4848428) Homepage Journal
    Could this be a landmark case of quantum theory manifesting itself in our macroscopic world? No, I'm not talking about the bacteria, let me quote from above:

    > It is also at Nature.Com, but that server is already rejecting connects.

    Effect preceeding Cause -- a server going down just *before* being Slashdotted. What's next, "first posts" before the topic is up? Stories repeated before they're posted in the first place? Dogs and cats living together?!
  • All these years we've been on Earth, and still we humans don't quite understand all the details of marine life.

    The articles featured by this Slashdot story focus on recent research that proves life exists many miles beneath the surface of the ocean.

    Also, I just read an article [] over at CNN about how typhoons, while dangerous, are absolutely necessary to sustain marine life for undersea creatures.

    The ocean truly is a beautiful work of science/art, even more so after each new discovery is uncovered.

    Kudos to the marine biologists that every 7th grade student wants to be! ;-D
  • Well duh! (Score:5, Funny)

    by spoonist ( 32012 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:22PM (#4848446) Journal
    Jules Verne wrote [] of life way beneath the surface of the Earth!!

    Geez... some news flash... it's only 131 years late!
  • useful? (Score:2, Interesting)

    While this is certainly interesting news, what practical applications could come of this? Why would it be beneficial to humans? What use, if any, can be found in the discovery of these critters??

    -- George W. Bush: 1000x better than Clinton the Ass Clown.
  • Mirror of SF article (Score:3, Informative)

    by The-Perl-CD-Bookshel ( 631252 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:37PM (#4848625) Homepage Journal

    Microbes thrive in the harshest environments Research findings give scientists hope of discovering life on planets

    Scientists pondering the possibility of life on distant planets have discovered colonies of earthly microbes thriving in more extreme environments than any they have found before.

    -- Bacteria are busily reproducing in the total darkness of water- bearing rocks 2 1/2 miles deep inside a South African gold mine, where the rocks themselves have apparently been isolated from the outside atmosphere for about 400 million years.

    -- Other bacteria, frozen into chunks of ice in a Washington laboratory, have thrived inside a high-pressure container and went right on reproducing after they were exposed to pressures equivalent to life at the bottom of an ocean 100 miles deep.

    The search for these hardy microbes on Earth -- known to science as "extremophiles" -- has been a high-priority project for NASA space planners, whose unmanned planetary probes have already been seeking evidence of life on Mars as well as Europa and other ice-covered moons of Jupiter.


    And the NASA spacecraft called Cassini, now on its way to explore the ringed planet Saturn, will be sending a probe deep beneath the thick atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn's major satellites, to learn whether some form of life -- or at least life's essential chemicals -- might lie on that mystery moon's surface.

    Scientists have long been wondering just what kind of life they might expect and what kind of unearthly conditions such living organisms might be able to withstand.

    Until now, researchers in NASA's Astrobiology Institute, whose headquarters are at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, and also at the nearby independent SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute have speculated, theorized and experimented with various concepts for life in extreme environments.

    Other scientists have already found microbes thriving in deep mines, in the boiling waters of Yellowstone's geysers, in the sub-zero dry valleys of Antarctica, in the saltiest of brines and the driest of deserts far from any water at all.

    At the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco this week, where nearly 10,000 scientists have gathered to report research in every discipline from space physics to seismology to oceanography, some of the scientists were reporting on the possible conditions for life in outer space.


    Tullis C. Onstott , a Princeton University geologist reported on the international team that found the bacteria living in the bottom of the deepest gold mines in South Africa.

    The mines' rock formations, Onstott said, are about 2.7 million years old, and vast quantities of salt water circulate through them at temperatures of about 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The scientists drilled boreholes into the blackness of fracture zones in the rocks at the bottom of those mines to obtain more than 100 samples of water and gas, and they found bacteria there thriving on enormous concentrations of hydrogen that provided them with energy for growth, Onstott said.

    In another report from the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Anurag Sharma described the "interesting effects on cellular physiology" that he and his colleagues at the institute observed during their experiments with two species of bacteria under high pressure.


    One species was the common Escherichia coli , well known as an inhabitant of the human gut, and the other was Shewanella oneidensis, which the Department of Energy hopes to use in its efforts to clean up uranium from contaminated wastes at the old World War II Hanford reactor sites in Washington state.

    Both species, Sharma said, were exposed to extremely high pressures inside the water cores of ice blocks and continued healthily reproducing after the ice was thawed and the pressure was reduced to normal.

  • by sterno ( 16320 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:41PM (#4848673) Homepage
    At this point, it seems pretty clear that life is a pretty common phenomenon. The only ingredients that are seemingly necessary are water, and carbon. These are ingredients that are spread throughout the universe in vast quantities.

    Some day soon, they will finally find bacteria on someplace like europa and we can put to rest any question that there is life out there. The conditions needed to support basic life are pretty minimal. The basic requirements for intellgient life are an entirely different matter. Can a civilization be built around hot thermal vents or two miles deep in ice?
  • Pressure? So what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by A non moose cow ( 610391 ) <> on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:47PM (#4848754) Journal
    Human beings seem to be hung on the idea that living in high pressure environments is an amazing thing simply because we can not do it.

    Human life depends heavily on gaseous exchanges, which behave differently at different pressures. Since liquids and solids are hardly compressible, it seems like a no-brainer that organisms that do not rely on gaseous exchanges can reamin intact perfectly well in extremely high pressures.

    I would have been more surprised if they had been destroyed.
    • Pressure effects are not just seen in gaseous exchanges, but with gaseous cavities. Boyles law gives us the volume reduction with pressure of an ideal gas, and that is what makes scuba diving so difficult for humans. Fish use a gas bladder to regulate boyancy, which is why deep species often burst when you catch them and haul them to the surface. Bacteria or any other species (including fish using gaseous exchange) generally don't have problems with deep sea pressures. The problems mostly come with the change in pressure, not the steady application of it over time. That is adapted to.
    • Human life depends heavily on gaseous exchanges, which behave differently at different pressures. Since liquids and solids are hardly compressible, it seems like a no-brainer that organisms that do not rely on gaseous exchanges can reamin intact perfectly well in extremely high pressures.

      I would have been more surprised if they had been destroyed.

      Here's a surprise then, gas exchange is not the only process affected. One effect is that the equilibrium states of chemical reactions which alter pressure are affected (A consequence of Le Chatelier's principle). Another is that the solvent properties of water are subtly affected, causing some proteins to denature.

      In fact, the effect is pronounced enough that it can be used commercially to perform pasturization (both with and without heat). Here's a link to a company called Avure [] which offers High Pressure Pasturization equipment.
  • by StefanJ ( 88986 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:51PM (#4848788) Homepage Journal
    The oil they're pushing up at us is part of a deliberate plot.

    With an infinite supply of oil, we'll soon burn out way into a cataclysmic Greenhouse Effect that will turn the Earth into a moist version of Venus, allowing them to colonize the surface.

    You've been warned!

  • by Arpie ( 414285 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @07:59PM (#4848886) Homepage
    This is another argument in favor of extra-terrestrial life. IMHO, it is very likely there's life out there. However, it could be so radically different than ours that not only it would be pretty much impossible for "us" to communicate with "them", but also we wouldn't even recognize each other as life!

    "Houston, we are landing on big rock number one, as planned... 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... contact."
    (Days later)
    "Ok, Houston, we are ready to depart. Our tests show no signs of life. We are coming back."
    (One hundred years later)
    "Ouch! Mom, I think something just scratched my back."
    (Two hundres years later)
    "Hmm, I don't see anything. You've probably just imagined it. Come on dear, it's time for your nap. I'll wake you up in 360 millenia, when dinner is ready."
  • by clem ( 5683 )
    On the Jerry Springer Show, life was confirmed at extreme shallows.
  • Key Distinction (Score:3, Informative)

    by Nilmat ( 626701 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @08:15PM (#4849040)
    It seems like people aren't really differentiating between two different lines of research going on here. I was actually at the AGU session where this research was presented, so I know. One involved finding bacteria at extreme depths in SA gold mines, which is being discussed a lot. In the other one, scientists working in a lab squeezed bacteria between two diamonds until the pressure was extremely high--almost three times as high as the pressure needed to turn liquid water into ice. However, in cracks in this ice a significant number of bacteria survived. In my opinion, this is particularly interesting with regards to extraterrestrial life as any environment on Mars, Europa, or Titan (the three likeliest candidates for life in our solar system) where life could be fould would probably be both icy and high-pressure.
  • But then I realized they were talking about the ocean instead of the RIAA. :( Figures.
  • by Comrade Pikachu ( 467844 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @09:17PM (#4849627) Homepage
    Many will argue that even though bacteria are found living at great depths, life had to originate in the shallows of Earth's oceans where chemicals in the ocean could react with the atmosphere.

    This theory is being contested, as described in this article [], which claims that life may have first arisen in the depths of the ocean, sheltered in a pre-cellular state inside of iron sulphide pockets. Since life can survive beneath the surface, and if it can arise without the need for an atmosphere, then it might indeed exist almost anywhere that liquid water is present.
  • Slash Pr0n (Score:3, Funny)

    by limekiller4 ( 451497 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @09:21PM (#4849651) Homepage
    SEWilco writes:
    ", deep bacteria..."

    This sounds suspiciously like some of the bizarre porn spam I get...
    • In another discovery, bacteria which live entirely on porn spam have been found buried 100 miles inside servers at a well known ISP.

      Even as I write this, teams of geeks and nerds on five continents are trying to find a way to make them breed on the surface - or at least in an Athlon.

  • SEWilco writes:
    "It is also at Nature.Com, but that server is already rejecting connects."

    The Slashdot Effect is several years old now. It's about !@#$ing time they started to learn how to dive for cover!
  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @10:53PM (#4850382) Journal
    Let's see, life that never sees the sun, never takes a shower, exists without any contact with the surface world...

    I'll bet you 2:1 that it's probably already maxed out it's karma on /.

    (Probably has more accepted posts than me, too.)
  • I always do wonder (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Smid ( 446509 )
    Why the obsession with outer space and the masses of energy expended to get there...

    When there's massive amounts of extreme environments unexplorer on our own planet which can turn out such wonders as our potential origins...

    A map 100 years ago had vast regions not filled in because they had been unexplored. They are still largely unexplored, but now we have pictures of them from space, and I guess thats enough for the human being, so see them, rather than to have visited them...
    I'm not just talking deepest africa, deepest oceanic crevices too. We're setting up permanent residence in a vacuum, why not in high pressure?
  • I just finished reading a book called _Starfish_ by Peter Watts [], and for those interested, it's about a group of cybernetically modified folks who live at these depths tending to generating equipment that harvests energy from the thermal vents. (OK, it's more exciting than I make it out, but that's why I read instead of write, right?)

    I'm now reading the sequel _Maelstrom_. I recommend both these books (tho I'm not quite through with the 2d yet).

    In any event, the science in these books is very interesting and accurate AFAIK. A bit cyberpunk, a bit Jules Verne, all in all worth the read, IMHO.

  • At least ten years old. The earth is full of life. Life helps makes the rocks: limestone, iron deposits, most ore deposits, petroleum deposits.

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. -- F. Brooks, "The Mythical Man-Month"