New, Strange Microbes Thrive Deep Within Planet Earth without Oxygen

First Posted: Feb 16, 2016 09:59 AM EST

Scientists have discovered strange microbes that thrive deep within our planet. The microbes, which live several miles beneath the Earth's crust, don't need light or oxygen and can only be seen with the help of a microscope.

Microorganisms that live below the surface of the planet remain one of the last great areas of exploration. Organisms that live there have not been grown in the laboratory, which means that their lifestyles are generally unknown. That's why researchers have dedicated themselves to studying these strange and unusual organisms.

In this latest study, the researchers found a new class of strange microbes in two vastly different aquatic and terrestrial environments. More specifically, they discovered them in the deep mud of a temperate estuary in North Carolina, and underneath hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.

"This new class of microbes are specialized for survival beneath the surface, so we called them 'Hadesarchaea,' after the ancient Greek god of the underworld," said Brett Baker, lead author of the new study, in a news release.

The Hadesarchaea belong to a relatively unknown group of organisms, called the archaea. Like bacteria, archaea are single-celled and microscopically small, but from an evolutionary perspective, they differ more from each other than a humans does from a tree.

The researchers also sequenced the genomes of several Hadesarchaea. This revealed that the microbes may be able to survive in locations devoid of oxygen by using carbon monoxide to gain energy. In addition, the researchers found that the chemical pathways that the Hadesarchaea cells use to metabolize carbon monoxide are unique to what has been seen before.

"Before this essentially nothing was known about the Hadesarchaea's ecological role and what makes them so prominent throughout the world," said Jimmy Saw, co-author of the new paper. "The new discovery expands our knowledge of how these organisms may have adapted to the extreme conditions of the deep biosphere."

The findings are published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

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