Some of my friends, both cyberspace and local, don’t hold much truck with the idea of ‘Gaia’ or ‘The Living Earth’. The idea of a whole planet as a personal, living, breathing being is an alien concept for a lot of people. To equate the planet itself to a status rivaling humans, gods or ‘God’ is anathema to American Puritan sensibilities and enters the territory of ‘radical’ environmentalists, tree-huggers, hippies and other disparaging names put to children of nature.
Well, thanks once again to that dreaded empirical evil called science, evidence rears its’ ugly head and puts a little credence into the ‘Gaia’ theory:
It’s the basement apartment like no other. Life has been found 1.6 kilometres beneath the sea floor, at temperatures reaching 100 °C.
The discovery marks the deepest living cells ever to be found beneath the sea floor. Bacteria have been found deeper underneath the continents, but there they are rare. In comparison, the rocks beneath the sea appear to be teaming with life.
John Parkes, a geobiologist at the University of Cardiff, UK, hopes his team’s discovery might one day help find life on other planets. He says it might even redefine what we understand as life, and, bizarrely, what we understand by “age”.
Parkes has been hunting for deep life for over 20 years. Recently, he and his colleagues examined samples of a mud core extracted from between 860 metres and 1626 metres beneath the sea floor off the coast of Newfoundland.
They found simple organisms known as prokaryotes in every sample. Prokaryotes are organisms that often have just one cell. Their peculiarity is that, unlike any other form of life, their DNA is not neatly packed into a nucleus.
How do you like that! Real single-celled organisms living in the regolith of the planet itself, under the oceans.
But how did they get there? The geobiologists are unsure. One theory is that they got buried gradually by sedimentary settling. Another is that the cells got ‘sucked up’ through muddy areas. And the organisms resemble organisms found around geothermal vents on the ocean floor located near geologically active fault zones.
Interestingly, great masses of this lifeform are found 3.2 to 5 kilometers under the surface of the Earth:
We have recovered living cells from depths of 3.2 km to about 5 km in South Africa,” says Tullis Onstott of Princeton University. “But what I find most interesting in Parkes’ samples is the high density of microbial cells. They are about 100 to 1000-fold greater than in our terrestrial environments at comparable depths or temperatures…
Presently nobody has any idea why or how these organisms live in these conditions or how they got there. But if the theory of Gaia has any basis in fact, could the planet itself be forming life from internal chemicals and processes and thus working them to the surface via volcanic action and the deep ocean geothermal vents?
Nature is a wondrous mechanism. Earth and our Solar System were formed from materials left over from ancient supernovas and destroyed galaxies.
Life could be as common in the Universe as stardust. They’re of the same stuff!