Even miles under the Earth’s surface and halfway across the globe, scientists have found that the communities of microbes are often quite similar.
The results, which researchers presented at the American Geophysical Union conference, suggest that these communities may be connected, says Matthew Schrenk, a geomicrobiologist at Michigan State University.
“Two years ago we had a scant idea about what microbes are present in subsurface rocks or what they eat,” he says. “We’re now getting this emerging picture not only of what sort of organisms are found in these systems but some consistency between sites globally—we’re seeing the same types of organisms everywhere we look.”
Schrenk leads a team studying samples from deep underground in California, Finland, and from mine shafts in South Africa. The scientists also collect microbes from the deepest hydrothermal vents in the Caribbean Ocean.
“It’s easy to understand how birds or fish might be similar oceans apart,” Schrenk says. “But it challenges the imagination to think of nearly identical microbes 16,000 kilometers apart from each other in the cracks of hard rock at extreme depths, pressures, and temperatures.”
Cataloging and exploring this region, a relatively unknown biome, could lead to breakthroughs in offsetting climate change, the discovery of new enzymes, and processes that may be useful for biofuel and biotechnology research, he adds.
For example, Schrenk’s future efforts will focus on unlocking answers to what carbon sources the microbes use, how they cope in such extreme conditions, as well as how their enzymes evolved to function so deep underground.
“Integrating this region into existing models of global biogeochemistry and gaining better understanding into how deep rock-hosted organisms contribute or mitigate greenhouse gases could help us unlock puzzles surrounding modern-day Earth, ancient Earth, and even other planets,” Schrenk says.
Collecting and comparing microbiological and geochemical data across continents is made possible through the DCO. The DCO has allowed scientists from across disciplines to better understand and describe these phenomena, he adds.
Additional researchers include Julie Huber of Marine Biological Lab, T.C. Onstott of Princeton University, Merja Itavaara of VTT Finland, and Ramunas Stepanauskas of Bigelow Laboratories.
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Deep Carbon Observatory funds the team.
Source: Michigan State University