Newfound Bacteria Fueled by Radiation
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006; Page A07
They are the microbes from hell, or at least from hell’s Zip code.
A team of scientists has found bacteria living nearly two miles below ground, dining on sulfur in a world of steaming water and radioactive rock. A single cell may live a century before it gets up the energy to divide. The organisms have been there for millions of years. They will probably survive as long as the planet does, drawing energy from the stygian world around them.
The microbes, found in water spilling out of a fissure in a South African gold mine in 2003, are not entirely new, the researchers report in today’s issue of Science. They are similar to ones found in other extreme environments and among the most primitive life forms ever described.
What is unusual is that their underground home contains no nutrients traceable to photosynthesis, the sunlight-harnessing process that fuels all life on Earth’s surface. Such a community is an oddity on this planet — and is of interest to people looking for life on other ones.
“There is an organism that dominates that environment by feeding off an essentially inexhaustible source of energy — radiation,” said Tullis C. Onstott, a geoscientist at Princeton University who led the team. “The bottom line is: Water plus rocks plus radiation is enough to sustain life for millennia.”
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Bacteria are by far the fittest and oldest form of life on this planet. They live on and inside us thus go everywhere we go including into space. They’ve been discovered everywhere on the earth where liquid water can exist even when it has to be under extreme pressure not to turn into steam from the heat. They vastly outnumber anything in else number of individuals and biomass. They ostensibly preceded any other kind of life by billions of years and still exist today in forms indistinguishable from those in past (as far we can tell what they were like in the past which isn’t a whole lot). One wonders how or why higher plants and animals managed to evolve and survive amidst these masters of survival. A interesting thing to think about is that bacteria, along with all other life on the earth, is doomed in another several billion years when the sun turns into a red giant and fries the earth to a crisp. That means the bacteria that have survived for billions of years have lived about half their lifetime. The only way bacteria could survive longer is if they can somehow find a new habitable planet and translocate to it. This seems to require telescopes to locate habitable planets and spacecraft to get from here to there. Maybe that’s why we are here – to make sure all life doesn’t die when the earth is no longer habitable. Maybe that’s been the “plan” all along and this has happened before many times on many other worlds with ours just one more link in the chain. Why else would be building telescopes that can find planets around other stars and spacecraft that can escape the solar system? There’s no practical benefit in it except perhaps for this. Maybe it’s a biological imperative and we really have no choice about building telescopes and spacecraft.