The hidden world under the sea: Scientists find 'parallel universe' of life INSIDE the basalt of the oceanic crust
- Scientists took core samples from crust hidden beneath 2.5km of water and hundreds of metres of sediment
- They found evidence of micro-organisms living in the total absence of light and almost entirely disconnected from the world above
- New discoveries about how such creatures survive in the extreme environment could help inform search for life on other planets
By Damien Gayle
Published: 10:04 GMT, 15 March 2013 | Updated: 11:29 GMT, 15 March 2013
A parallel universe of life exists hidden beneath our planet's ocean floors and could help us search for life on other planets, new research claims.
An international team of scientists found evidence of tiny creatures living inside the basalt of the Pacific Ocean floor - covered by 2.5km of water and hundreds of metres of sediment.
The results of their studies, published today in the journal Science, have revealed evidence of a vast ecosystem whose characteristics are entirely different from any previously investigated.
The thundering waves of the Pacific Ocean: Scientists have found evidence of an ecosystem 2.5km beneath the surface of the ocean, actually inside the basalt of the Earth's crust
Core samples taken from the sea floor off the west coast of the U.S. contained traces of micro-organisms living in the total absence of light, and almost entirely disconnected from the world above.
'We're providing the first direct evidence of life in the deeply buried oceanic crust,' said microbiologist Mark Lever, who worked on the study as a PhD student at North Carolina.
'Our findings suggest that this spatially vast ecosystem is largely supported by chemosynthesis.'
It's widely held that sunlight is a prerequisite for life on Earth. Photosynthetic organisms use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into organic material that makes up the foundation of Earth's food chains.
But life in the porous rock material in the oceanic crust is fundamentally different. Energy – and therefore life's driving force – derives from geochemical processes.
'There are small veins in the basaltic oceanic crust and water runs through them,' said Dr Lever, who is now a scientist at the Centre for Geomicrobiology at Aarhus University in Denmark.
'The water probably reacts with reduced iron compounds, such as olivine, in the basalt and releases hydrogen. Microorganisms use the hydrogen as a source of energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic material.'
Dr Olivier Rouxel, of the French IFREMER institute, added: 'So far, evidence for life deep within oceanic crust was based on chemical and textural signatures in rocks, but direct proof was lacking.'
Evidence: Left, a cross section of a basalt core shows alteration halos surrounding veins or fractures. Right, a microscopic view shows pyrite granules with changes in sulphur concentration, an element used by microbes
The oceanic crust covers 60 per cent of the Earth's surface. Taking the volume into consideration, this makes it the largest ecosystem on Earth.
Since the Seventies, researchers have found local ecosystems, such as hot springs, which are sustained by chemical energy.
'The hot springs are mainly found along the edges of the continental plates, where the newly formed oceanic crust meets seawater,' said Dr Lever.
'However, the bulk of oceanic crust is deeply buried under layers of mud and hundreds to thousands of kilometres away from the geologically active areas on the edges of continental plates.
'Until now, we've had no proof that there is life down there.'
Even though this enormous ecosystem is probably mainly hydrogen based, several different forms of life are found here, the researchers say. The hydrogen-oxidising microorganisms create organic material that forms the basis for other microorganisms in the basalt.
Some organisms get their energy by producing methane or by reducing sulphate, while others get energy by breaking down organic carbon by means of fermentation.
Dr Lever is a specialist in sulphur-reducing and methane-producing organisms, and these were the organisms he also chose to examine among the samples taken from the oceanic crust.
These organisms are able to use hydrogen as a source of energy, and are typically not found in seawater.
This map shows the locations off America's Pacific west coast, where researchers took their core samples
Dr Lever had to make sure that no microorganisms had been introduced as contaminants during the drilling process, or transported from bottom seawater entering the basaltic veins.
'We collected rock samples 55km from the nearest outcrop where seawater is entering the basalt,' he explained.
'Here the water in the basaltic veins has a chemical composition that differs fundamentally from seawater, for instance, it is devoid of oxygen produced by photosynthesis.
'The microorganisms we found are native to basalt.'
Dr Lever's basalt is 3.5million years old, but laboratory cultures show that the DNA belonging to these organisms is not fossil.
'It all began when I extracted DNA from the rock samples we had brought up,' he said. 'To my great surprise, I identified genes that are found in methane-producing microorganisms.
'We subsequently analysed the chemical signatures in the rock material, and our work with carbon isotopes provided clear evidence that the organic material did not derive from dead plankton introduced by seawater, but was formed within the oceanic crust.
'In addition, sulphur isotopes showed us that microbial cycling of sulphur had taken place in the same rocks.
'These could all have been fossil signatures of life, but we cultured microorganisms from basalt rocks in the laboratory and were able to measure microbial methane production.'
Mark Lever of Aarhus University works under sterile conditions in the laboratory: Familiar tools such as a hammer are necessary for a geomicrobiologist working with rock samples from the oceanic crust.
Dr Jeff Alt of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor added: 'Our work proves that microbes play an important role in basalt chemistry, and thereby influence ocean chemistry'.
Exploring the oceanic crust is still a young science. However, the prospects are great.
'Life in the deeply buried oceanic crust is supported by energy-sources that are fundamentally different from the ones that support life in both the mud layers in the sea bed and the oceanic water column,' said Dr Lever.
'It is possible that life based on chemosynthesis is found on other planets, where the chemical environment permits.
'Our continued studies will hopefully reveal whether this is the case, and also what role life in the oceanic crust plays in the overall carbon cycle on our own planet.'
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The ocean can be described in an endless number of ways. It's refreshing, beautiful and humbling. It's vast, mysterious and terrifying. It's magnificence has inspired countless novels, films, documentaries, songs, and HuffPost articles.
If it were a god, it would already have millions of devoted disciples -- divers, scientists, surfers, biologists, ocean-going enthusiasts -- who are in constant awe of its power and beauty. That's why, for World Oceans Day, we wanted to explore the reasons we are all drawn to the sea.
Below, 16 reasons the ocean, our beloved resource, is one of the most fascinating elements on our planet Earth.
1. The ocean covers over 70 percent of our planet's surface and contains about 99 percent of the living space on Earth.
According to the MarineBio Conservation Society, humans have only explored less than 10 percent of that "living space," which pretty much means we know absolutely nothing about the blue marble of a world we live in:
(OK -- now that we have you thoroughly freaked out, read on...)
2. An estimated 2.2 million species live in the ocean.
Between 50 to 80% of all life on Earth is under the sea:
3. Like this jellyfish that ages backwards.
The Turritopsis dohrnii (a.k.a. the "immortal" jellyfish) has the ability to transform itself into a younger state:
4. Or this horseshoe crab.
They've existed on Earth for over 300 million years. That's older than the dinosaurs:
5. Or the largest and heaviest animal to ever exist.
The blue whale, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, can grow as long as 100 feet and weigh up to 330,000 pounds:
6. But let's talk about the one fish that everyone is absolutely fascinated with -- sharks.
Love 'em or hate 'em, these toothy fish are one parts terrifying, a thousand parts misunderstood. While they are considered an apex predator of the sea, you are at a higher risk of dying from a mosquito bite than a shark:
7. Sharks are actually designed to be the ultimate ocean navigators.
Shark skeleton is made of cartilage and its skin is covered with tiny toothlike scales, making them fierce swimming machines. And contrary to common belief, research has shown that sharks have sharp vision and are ten times more sensitive to light than humans -- perfect for preying in dark waters:
8. Speaking of dark waters, the average depth of the ocean is around 14,000 feet.
That's more than 40 football fields, from end zone to end zone. There, magnificent, bioluminescent, and sometimes even scary creatures roam about a dark world, like this viperfish:
And bioluminescent jellies, also known as ctenophore:
9. But, in lighter waters, where the sun rays glow, a magnificent forest emerges.
Kelp forests have the ability to grow up to 18 inches per day, creating the perfect, nutrient-rich playground for seals, sea lions, whales and birds:
And adorable sea otters:
10. The world's ocean is arguably the most important resource we, as citizens of Earth, have.
Aside from the oceans comprising most of our planet, it is a source of food for hundreds of thousands of species. Sadly, overfishing and other human-created pollution are responsible for harming our greatest resource. If we continue, we may eventually run out of fish, setting a domino effect of disaster. That could mean no more beautiful, thriving reefs like this:
Or this mesmerizing bait ball -- press play and watch the hypnotic fish gather by the thousands to protect themselves from predators like dolphins, sharks and birds (yes, aerial attackers swooping in from above):
11. And don't get us started on how naturally clever the ocean can be.
Ever thought, 'Silly Spongebob, how can there be a lake under the sea?' Turns out, we are the silly ones. In parts of the world, like in the waters of Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, hydrogen sulfate mixes with saltwater, making it heavier than regular saltwater and causing it to sink to the bottom and flow like a river:
12. The sea is actually way more physically diverse than that tropical beach on your phone's wallpaper.
It's frigid and cold:
It's fiercely rough and stormy:
But, of course, it's also warm, crystal clear and incredibly inviting:
13. And when the elements align in perfect unison, it's the ultimate playground.
But remember, the ocean isn't just a playground, nor is it only ours. It is a resource we must protect if we want to continue to enjoy it like this:
14. Can we just step back for a moment and take in just how simply beautiful the ocean is?
By the way, submersing yourself in the salty sea is actually good for your mental and physical health:
Deep breath in...
Deep breath out...
15. While we humans don't have gills (yet), the ocean can be one of our greatest spiritual sanctuaries.
Anyone who spends a lot of time in the ocean -- surfing through waves, diving in deep waters, sailing across the world -- can tell you just how humbling the power of the sea is. It can heighten the senses and can give you the most heartfelt and emotional thrill of your life:
(Photo by M Swiet Productions/Getty Images. Quote from Surfer Magazine by Keala Kennelly about surfing Teahupoo in Tahiti. Graphic by HuffPost Hawaii.)
16. The ocean, whether we realize it or not, is the world's most shared resource, jointly used by billions of humans all across the globe.
The sea provides us with air to breathe (ocean plants provide half of the world's oxygen), gives us food to eat (around 3.5 billion people rely on the ocean as their primary food source), and even helps boost our economy (one in every six jobs is marine-related). The Polynesian Voyaging Society recently began a three-year voyage around the world in a wooden canoe, using ancient wayfaring techniques, to prove that we are all connected and need to take care of Mother Earth, just as she takes care of us: