How slow can life go? How deep? At what point does biology become geology?
Dig down and you will find some answers.
If you go to the bottom of the ocean, first drill and drill and drill until you reach a further 2.5 kilometers. Smack through rock that has lain there 100 million years. What do you find under the intense pressure?
Life. A different sort of life.
There reside bacteria that reproduce every 10,000 years, as described in the recent Goldschmidt Conference on Geochemistry. Their metabolism is so slow some scientists consider them zombie-like – living in stasis.
And what of the viruses surrounding them that are ten times more numerous than the bacteria? How can they survive when the organisms they parasitize are spread at a millionth to a billionth of their density on earth’s surface?
Or are all those viruses in stasis too?
It’s been known for a while that most of life on earth may exist underneath the land and sea. Bacterial biomass beneath the earth’s meandering crust may dwarf the life we enjoy sheltered inside its atmosphere. Yet there are further implications to the new forms of life we are finding on our own planet:
Life Is Fast and Slow
In your cells flow a billion protein-protein interactions every second. You have ten trillion cells.
Yet there are bacteria below the earth which appear to muster no discernible activity at all. You possess one hundred trillion bacteria inhabiting your gut alone.
Reproduction every 10,000 years may actually be fast for some bacteria. Researchers are still scratching their heads after finding large bacterial populations living in underwater catchments underneath Antarctica that are dark, very deep – and have not seen the surface for an estimated 86 million years.
Is it possible some viruses are presently lasting millions of years? If so, these forms of life survive unyielding environments by shifting the whole nature of biological time.
Which means if we know what we are doing, we, too can make things last a lot longer than we think.
Life From Beyond
Much ink gets spilled on organic molecules “found” on the surface of meteorites, or asserted to be splashed from comets. Now we have evidence that life on earth can survive conditions like that of space – and apparently remain in stasis indefinitely.
Life may well be seeded by the random travels of comets and asteroids.
The Earth Is Alive
We tend to think of life as something existing on land, water, or perhaps a few meters beneath our lawns. Mine, pollute, pipe on trench deeper into the earth and we imagined ourselves merely disturbing soil, rock and more rock, regions of the undead.
Not so. Lower and lower we now find life abundant. Our earth is alive – at our level, below, and far above into the atmosphere. When we frack, when we drill for oil and platinum and diamonds, we’re changing more than our water supply – we’re changing ecosystems of which we know next to nothing.
Some climatologists are stumped. Global warming has not proceeded at quite the pace they expected.
Are we out of the woods? Sadly we don’t really know where these woods start or end.
Some think planetary warmth is being captured in the oceans. The oceans have indeed warmed at deep deaths far faster than at surface waters – of late. Whether this will someday unleash great heat traps and lead to rapid world wide ice melts is unknown.
Yet our crude models, depending so much on linear extrapolations, lull us into false confidence. Many natural processes operate non-linearly, even exponentially. Sometimes the upheavals are truly violent.
However, the appearance of bacteria so far below the earth’s surface argues that methods of carbon capture – so needed to control fossil fuel burning – may not require engineering giant caverns with supersized steel pipes.
It’s possible more carbon may be captured by bacteria and other organisms that lie beneath the earth and seas. What we presently despoil by mining and fracking may someday help save us from the methane and carbon dioxide we release on the surface.
Life as we live it is supremely fast and violent. Sitting inside a human cell is like taking the contents of your bedroom and slashing them around a blender at supersonic speeds. Yet the processes are so delicately balanced that repair and restoration occur faster than destruction, the end result newer and usually more effective than what came before.
But life can also move as slowly as soil geologically transformed into rock. Viruses exist where there appear too few living organisms to sustain them, which means they may require eons of waiting to act. And just as the ocean is another world of which we know little, the earth beneath our surface is a wholly different world of which we know less.
Life already survives “impossible” conditions. It’s time for us to learn how those processes work. That may allow us to survive, too.
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