More than 20 meters beneath the seafloor, microbes have adapted to an environment almost entirely devoid of nutrients and energy by slowing their metabolisms to the point where, up until recently, scientists assumed that they were dead.
A new study published last week in the journal Science sheds light on these slow-living, ancient microbes that have not received any fresh food since they were buried some 86 million years ago. Scientists have known about them since the 1990s, but this new study is the first to demonstrate the metabolism of these bacteria in their native soil:
“These organisms live so slowly that when we look at it at our own time scale, it’s like suspended animation,” said Danish scientist Hans Roy, a biologist at Aarhus University and the lead author of the study. “The main lesson here is that we need to stop looking at life at our own time scale.”
What’s particularly interesting is that these microbes aren’t necessarily freaks of nature – they could be the norm. Scientists suggest that bacteria living under the seafloor could account for 90% of all microbes on earth, yet we are just beginning to learn about them.
So far, there is no way of telling how old these microbes are. If they have managed to reproduce in these harsh conditions, then they are at least thousands of years old. But it’s also possible that the bacteria found are those that remain of an original population buried tens of millions of years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Live slow, live long? More at the Washington Post and The Scientist.