Life Found a Mile Below Terrestrial Seabed; Implications For Life on Mars

Article written: 26 May , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

We all know how hard life can be, but spare a thought for the microbes recently discovered 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) below the seabed off the coast of Canada. The living conditions are cramped, the environment is a searing 100°C (212F), and yet these hardy cells appear to be thriving. In the midst of the historic landing of Phoenix in the arctic wastes of Mars yesterday, the interest in finding life on the Red Planet has, yet again, reached fever pitch. Although Phoenix isn’t built to look for life, it is assessing the Martian surface water content for signs that it may (or may have been able to) support life. This new discovery of life so deep below the Earth’s surface may set some new limits on just how extreme life can be on other planets…

Off the Newfoundland coastline, scientists have burrowed far below the seabed. Smashing the previous record for subterranean life, this new discovery has found one of the most basic forms of terrestrial life living a mile deep (the previous record held at 842 meters, or 0.5 miles). As I’m no biologist, I’ll leave it to the Reuters news source to describe as to what was found:

Prokaryotes are microbes lacking nuclei, comprising archaea and some types of bacteria. The lack of cell nuclei distinguishes them from eukayrotes, or all animal and plant life.Reuters

These prokaryote specimens were scooped from sediments dating 111 million years old. At these depths, the sediment is subjected to temperatures from 60-100°C (140-212F), and John Parks, professor at the University of Wales (UK), belives that this type of microbe can live even deeper. He believes more prokaryotes could be discovered up to 4 km (2.5 miles) below the seabed. This leads to the question as to whether life on other planets may not be found on the surface, but deep inside their crust.

If there is a substantial subsurface biosphere on earth there could also be substantial biospheres on other planets. Just taking a scoop from the surface of Mars is not going to tell you whether there is life on Mars or not.” – Prof. John Parks

This obviously relates to the attempts made by previous Mars landers to analyse the surface for extraterrestrial microbes. However, a lot of information can be gained by analysing the surface composition for the materials required by life (as we know it) to survive. The Phoenix lander for instance was not designed for life hunting in mind, but it was designed to analyse the top layer of regolith for water content and evidence that liquid water may have once flowed in recent Mars history. Now we have extended our limit on where life may thrive, missions to Mars will need to burrow deeper into the surface, or we’ll simply have to wait till we can do it ourselves.

It is not clear where these subterranean microbes get their energy from. Sunlight probably isn’t a factor; methane and heat from volcanic vents seem more obvious candidates.

There is a problem associated with finding life this deep. It complicates possible plans to bury carbon dioxide emissions deep underground to slow the effects of climate change. It is a completely untouched ecosystem, dumping our waste could have serious consequences for these colonies of microbes. However, it might take some convincing as the U.N. Climate Panel has announced that carbon dioxide burial may be the key tool in the future to prevent this greenhouse gas from escaping into the atmosphere.

Source: Reuters


12 Responses

  1. AJames says

    Very, very disappointed with this particular opportunistic news note in Universe Today. This is mainly because of the head grabbing headline to reel us (sucker) readers in – especially with the Martian lander so very close on it heels.
    Sorry, at the moment I am having serious problems with the media regarding Phoenix. This is because I cannot ; separate speculation from the science / truth from reality / .psuedo-science from discovery / hype, politics and congratulating the funding bodies against hushed and humble awe.

    If they find life on Mars, then we should all celebrate, Until then all the speculation “don’t really mean a thing in this crazy world…”

    (NOTE: More interested at the moment with the Cisco “live” hologram stories on telepresence – just like Princess Leia in the beginning scenes of Star Wars : A New Hope… Ie. “Help me Obi-Won Konobi. Your Our Only Hope.” Finding Life on Mars might be wonderful to discover, but having realistic holographic images projected on the internet in the next 5 years will change communications and entertainment between people throughout the entire world. The applications will make this technology as important as the telephone, the computer or even penicillin . Maybe the first person on Mars, might even be a projected hologram!)

  2. Dave says

    I was so caught up in “Life Found” I didn’t even register the “Terrestrial” part. You got me good.

  3. geokster says

    Amazing, and disgusting.

    Somehow this discovery of the hardiness of life was turned into another propaganda screed for global warming advocates and radical envirofreaks. According to the apocalyptics, there is apparently nothing we can do now to prevent Earth from turning into Venus short of eliminating 99% of the human population and turning the rest into a strictly organic agrarian society, is there?

    That is, except for the elites like Algore, who will lead us into the Promised Land in his ethanol Hummer, along with his acolytes, like the ones who rule here.

    This site used to be one of my favorite daily stops. No longer.

    There are plenty of other top-notch sites where all the same scientific discoveries are found, without the political correctness. I’m voting with my keyboard and deleting this one from my favorites.

    Go ahead and preach to your choir.

  4. Member

    Oh dear. No prokaryote was hurt during the making of this article…

    I’m sorry for those who think this posting was “opportunistic”, after all we can’t go mentioning the “life” topic so soon after the landing of a Mars mission (that cannot search for life anyway). The heading CLEARLY states “Life Found a Mile Below Terrestrial Seabed; Implications For Life on Mars”. How else would you have me write it?

    And geokster, sorry to be losing you, but judging by your comment, you read what you want into our articles anyway! I’ll tell you what, take a deep breath, calm down, and read the last paragraph again. If you feel the same, you obviously don’t know what I’m talking about. In short, finding life this deep means that if we pump CO2 into the ground, it could wipe out this type of microbe. To be honest, at this stage, we do not know the importance of prokaryotes in the wider ecosystem, or food chain. I was simply stating, that if the current plans to dispose of carbon in this way go ahead, prokaryote damage could be irreversible.

    Thank you Jozef K, astrojog, Astrofiend and Steve, looks like you guys read the article. Thank you for the support 🙂

    Cheers! Ian

  5. Jozef K says

    @ Geokster,

    Really? Ian is reporting on a news relating to how life found in the earth in harsh conditions raises hopes of possible life on Mars and how it possibly threats untouched ecosystems.

    I don’t recall reading anything about killing off humanity…

    Good work Ian! Keep up the cool news!!! 😀

  6. Astrofiend says

    geokster Says:
    May 26th, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    “blah blah blah”

    Wow; passionate, aren’t we geokster? Storming off chucking a little tanty like most of your type do when the tide of scientific opinion is against you. You aren’t an ‘intelligent design’ proponent too by any chance, are you? I just mention it because it seems that the same childish behaviour that you demonstrate in your rant seems to be a trait that is quite similar to that commonly observed in the ID mafia. Boo hoo.

    This article made the barest mention of climate change, and did so in a manner that was relevant to the main story at hand. It didn’t even promote the concept for goodness sake. It simply stated that carbon sequestration could affect habitats that were previously unknown. If anything, that provides an argument against the process, which should make you happy seeing as climate change is all a load of rubbish anyway – right?

    F-M-D; the people that write these articles keep doing so for God-knows-what-reason. Half of what they write is lambasted by morons with an axe to grind, and yet they continue to churn out quality stories anyway which we should all be grateful for. So if you don’t want to read it – don’t. If you disagree with something, come up with a thoughtful post or argument defending your position, or keep it to yourself.

    You say that you won’t be coming here again, but you’ll probably be back. And we’ll all have the displeasure of reading your mind-numbing posts and knowing that we just got a bit dumber for the effort.

  7. Steve says

    Amen astrofiend,
    Could not have said it better myself.
    These discoveries keep pushing the limits to what our current theories of life exist. Im still waiting for the discovery of a non carbon based form whether it be on another body or here on earth.

  8. Member

    Hi Dave, I wasn’t actually referring to your comment, apologies for not being specific. It was in response to AJames’ comment about my “opportunistic” writing. Your comment didn’t offend in the slightest, you explained what you meant, so sorry if you thought I was directing it at you.

    See you around! Cheers, Ian 🙂

  9. Dave Kinsley says

    Wherever you go on this planet there is life. Hope it is the same elsewhere in our solar system.

    There is no excuse that can be made to destroy life so we can dump our waste.

  10. Dave says

    I think everybody understood the article after a second. I know I was just joking because hey, it did get me. Don’t tell me I didn’t read the article.

  11. David says

    Excellent article, excellent research. I think it’s cool that I can access FREE science written by an actual scientist…and every now and then engage in dialogue.

    I definately agree with Ian on this one. The ranters who mingled in the assorted comments above didn’t bother to come up with meaningful counterpoints…but rather reactionary invective. This seems to be the signs of our times. Particularly, western culture has become so polarized in its thinking that we are losing the ability to have a meaningful discussion (not to mention friendship) with people that we disagree with. How unfortunate.

    Back to the article. The question that I raise is this a matter of “top down” evolution? What I mean is, the earth’s surface is generally teeming with life. Did surface life make its way down to the depths and learn to adapt or did it develop independently in the environment? I ask this because that may have implications for finding life on Mars. If the surface of Mars never had a chance to develop life, would that not make it less likely to find life below the surface? Just wondering. Any comments, y’all?

  12. zifferman says

    Don’t worry, Ian – the whiners in this thread don’t know squat about real science, so just ignore them and let them crawl back into their dark holes.

    Viva la life everywhere! Except the idiots I mentioned above. 😉

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