sciencehabit writes: Microbes buried beneath the sea floor for more than 100 million years are still alive, a new study reveals. When brought back to the lab and fed, they started to multiply. The microbes are oxygen-loving species that somehow exist on what little of the gas diffuses from the ocean surface deep into the seabed. The discovery raises the “insane” possibility, as one of the scientists put it, that the microbes have been sitting in the sediment dormant, or at least slowly growing without dividing, for eons. The new work demonstrates “microbial life is very persistent, and often finds a way to survive,” says Virginia Edgcomb, a microbial ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who was not involved in the work.
What’s more, by showing that life can survive in places biologists once thought uninhabitable, the research speaks to the possibility of life elsewhere in the Solar System, or elsewhere in the universe. “If the surface of a particular planet does not look promising for life, it may be holding out in the subsurface,” says Andreas Teske, a microbiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who was also not involved with the new study. Researchers have known that life exists “under the floorboards” of the ocean for more than 15 years. But geomicrobiologist Yuki Morono of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology wanted to know the limits of such life. Microbes are known to live in very hot or toxic environments, but can they live where there’s little food to eat? To find out, Morono and his colleagues mounted a drilling expedition in the South Pacific Gyre, a site of intersecting ocean currents east of Australia that is considered the deadest part of the world’s oceans, almost completely lacking the nutrients needed for survival. When they extracted cores of clay and other sediments from as deep as 5700 meters below sea level, they confirmed the samples did indeed contain some oxygen, a sign that there was very little organic material for bacteria to eat.
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