Monday, July 11, 2011

Afternoon science note: Worms from hell! 


After digging holes in the Earth's crust for nearly two decades, Princeton University geoscientist Tullis Onstott is now making headlines for unearthing "worms from hell."

Onstott's research team, which he led with Gaetan Borgonie of the University of Ghent in Belgium, recently made a startling discovery: microscopic roundworms known as nematodes living nearly two-and-a-half miles beneath the Earth's surface in several South African gold mines. The worms are roughly a quarter of the diameter of the head of a pin. Although nematode species have been known to live as far as 20 feet below the surface, scientists generally assumed there was no reason to believe the organisms would be found anywhere near the depths of those found by Onstott's team, he noted.

There is a big difference between 20 feet and 2 1/2 miles. If relatively complex life can survive in that niche, it can survive on other planets. The question is, did life ever get started there?


By Blogger Shane Enochs, at Mon Jul 11, 03:26:00 PM:

If we ever figure out a way to do it, I'd bet when we reach the core we'll find organisms there as well.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Mon Jul 11, 03:31:00 PM:

I've been with the minority view that doubts that ancient dinosaurs and plants somehow found their way underground with sufficent mass to give us the oil and gas we use today.

But what then? Microrganisms deep underground feeding off the energy of the core and the Earth's spin?  

By Blogger pam, at Mon Jul 11, 08:26:00 PM:

Wicked Cool.  

By Blogger Simon Kenton, at Mon Jul 11, 08:57:00 PM:

They closed the cave paintings because of the unwitting import of micro-organism by tourists. Is there any particular reason to suppose these nematodes native to the lower mantle, rather than hitchhikers on the miners?  

By Blogger randian, at Mon Jul 11, 09:30:00 PM:

The book "Deep, Hot Biosphere" argues that petroleum products are not sourced from dead biomass.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Tue Jul 12, 08:27:00 AM:

Thanks for the tip on Deep, Hot Biosphere. I had heard the theory and was intrigued. I hadn't know of author Thomas Gold, and that he was a big proponent. I just learned that Gold was a polymath, and mostly an astrophysicist. Gold had many bold ideas, was often shouted down by others, and was almost always right. Stephen Hawking got famous building on Gold's work.

I've long been skeptical that biology could drive geology in scale enough to create huge coal and oil and gas deposits. Ergo, it must be the other way around.

Just looked it up -- the deepest anyone has ever drilled is just over 12,000 meters -- about eight miles. We've only scratched the surface.

A minute of googling "methane in space" and I find the remarkable recent discovery that the methane in Mars' atmosphere can only last a year -- sunlight breaks it down -- but its not depleting, so it's apparently getting replenished from some source internal to Mars. ps Mars climate change parallels our own.  

By Blogger John, at Tue Jul 12, 07:56:00 PM:

Yep - Gold's work is very intriguing. Kindle edition is available here...


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