How do you catch one of the most mysterious, yet possibly most abundant organisms on earth? Build a nice house for it–and wait.
Microbes that may live in the rocky, waterlogged crust beneath the world’s oceans are invisible to the naked eye and happen to live in one of the most inaccessible places on the planet. Scientists trying to study them are taking a wait-and-see strategy–a five year wait, in fact–to determine whether they might be able to glimpse into the cold, high-pressure, subterranean world that these microbes may inhabit.
“It’s a huge habitat just in terms of volume, and there is a fair amount of energy available to support life,” said Wolfgang Bach, a petrologist at the University of Bremen in Germany in LiveScience.
We know virtually nothing about microbes that dwell deep below the oceans and in the rock of the earth itself. Despite estimates that they may represent a third of the biomass on the planet, no one has ever seen them alive, not to mention brought a few back to the lab to study.
That’s the mission of the International Ocean Drilling Program, partially sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which will install “microbe observatories” in specially selected spots on the ocean floor about 60 miles away from the volcanic Mid-Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates are slowly spreading apart, exposing bits of the earth’s interior.
“The crust is still young, and it’s still permeable, so seawater can circulate, but it doesn’t get very hot,” said Bach. The hope is that such an environment will host ample numbers of these mercurial, hypothetical microbes. Once we find them, they may reveal some secrets about life on this planet, or perhaps how to survive under such extreme conditions–which is a lesson we might need sooner rather than later.