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Most of Earth covered with life powered on hydrogen. Living Rocks?

File this under: What don’t we know?

We just discovered slice “2″ is alive.  |1 – Continental crust | 2 -Oceanic crust | 3 – Upper Mantle | 4 – Lower Mantle | 5 – Outer Core | 6 – Inner Core | Image Credit: Dake

You might have thought that photosynthetic life forms had the Earth covered, but according to some researchers the largest ecosystem on Earth was just discovered and announced last Thursday, and it’s powered by hydrogen, not photosynthesis.

The Oceanic Crust is the rocky hard part under the mud that lies under the ocean. It covers 60% of the planet and it’s 10km thick. (The oceans themselves are a paltry 4km deep on average.) We’ve known for years that the isolated hot springs in trenches held life. But who thought that all the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of basalt rock in between had its own life cycle? Last week a group from the Center for Geomicrobiology at Aarhus University, Denmark announced that they had drilled through crust that was 2.5km underwater and 55 km away from anything that mattered. They found life in the basalt.

“We’re providing the first direct evidence of life in the deeply buried oceanic crust. Our findings suggest that this spatially vast ecosystem is largely supported by chemosynthesis,” says Dr Lever, at the time a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, and now a scientist at the Center for Geomicrobiology at Aarhus University, Denmark.

The microorganisms we found are native to basalt,” explains Dr Lever.

It’s a hydrogen powered life

Energy from reduced iron

We have learned that sunlight is a prerequisite for life on Earth. Photosynthetic organisms use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into organic material that makes up the foundation of Earth’s food chains. Life in the porous rock material in the oceanic crust is fundamentally different. Energy — and therefore life’s driving force — derives from geochemical processes.

“There are small veins in the basaltic oceanic crust and water runs through them. The water probably reacts with reduced iron compounds, such as olivine, in the basalt and releases hydrogen. Microorganisms use the hydrogen as a source of energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic material,” explains Dr Lever. “So far, evidence for life deep within oceanic crust was based on chemical and textural signatures in rocks, but direct proof was lacking,” adds Dr Olivier Rouxel of the French IFREMER institute.

It’s not just hydrogen-powered, there’s sulphate, methane, and carbon fermentation too

Even though this enormous ecosystem is probably mainly based on hydrogen, several different forms of life are found here. The hydrogen-oxidising microorganisms create organic material that forms the basis for other microorganisms in the basalt. Some organisms get their energy by producing methane or by reducing sulphate, while others get energy by breaking down organic carbon by means of fermentation.

These bugs are not the same ones in the sea water. There is no oxygen, and while they are in old rocks, they are not fossils

Dr Lever’s basalt is 3.5 million years old, but laboratory cultures show that the DNA belonging to these organisms is not fossil. “It all began when I extracted DNA from the rock samples we had brought up. To my great surprise, I identified genes that are found in methane-producing microorganisms. We subsequently analysed the chemical signatures in the rock material, and our work with carbon isotopes provided clear evidence that the organic material did not derive from dead plankton introduced by seawater, but was formed within the oceanic crust. In addition, sulphur isotopes showed us that microbial cycling of sulphur had taken place in the same rocks. These could all have been fossil signatures of life, but we cultured microorganisms from basalt rocks in the laboratory and were able to measure microbial methane production,” explains Dr Lever. Dr Jeff Alt of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor adds that “Our work proves that microbes play an important role in basalt chemistry, and thereby influence ocean chemistry.”

I’m sure the U.N. will be getting a team over there next week… I don’t think they’ve got these rocks in their models.

[Science Daily]

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49 comments to Most of Earth covered with life powered on hydrogen. Living Rocks?

  • #
    janama

    The late Lance Endersbee believed that water was created in the mantel, some believe oil is similarly created, we know nothing about our planet and how it works. It’s still one of the greatest mysteries on earth.


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  • #

    It might be cliche, but life finds a way.


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  • #
    Roy Hogue

    I’m sure the U.N. will be getting a team over there next week… I don’t think they’ve got these rocks in their models.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those rocks turn out to be smarter than the UN.


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    • #
      KinkyKeith

      Ha ha.

      I can’t get the image of a smart rock out of my mind.

      A lump of rock has high integrity; it does its’ job very well, is solid, doesn’t steal, never lies, doesn’t

      make up stories, unlike the UN, and when struck with a good sized hammer presents a nice clean unambiguous

      fracture surface.

      Which brings to mind the idea of striking the UN with a good sized hammer.

      Think your observation might attract a lot of “consensus” there Roy.

      KK :)


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      • #
        Manfred

        A few years ago ‘Pet’ rocks were in vogue, and no doubt some people talked to their uniquely quiet specimen. This might be a good alternative occupation for unemployed modellers and atmospheric climate scientists?


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  • #
    Kevin Lohse

    Jo, Can you put in the key for that diagram at top of page?

    ————————
    REPLY: Done Kevin. It was meant to be there… inadvertantly disappeared in the edit. — Jo


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  • #

    Photosynthesis and Chemosynthesis both are endothermic storage of heat as energy. So does more CO2 cause cooling? Also does getting oil out of the way help this life to cool the planet? Does this mean that in the right conditions oil could be quickly renewable without being abiotically produced?
    So many questions for the “settled science”.


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  • #
    Manfred

    Thanks for a fascinating heads-up Jo. The endless complexity of things (with the notable exception of Babylonian Climatastrolgy) is a real source of wonder. Gives one pause for thought. Who knows – ‘extremophiles’ of this kind may account for the trace of atmospheric methane observed on Mars – exciting prospect. I can’t wait to learn what an analysis of Martian nucleic material might look like.


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  • #

    More to learn, how wonderful!

    No doubt there are factions out there already looking to exploit this and launch new fears in the future, if only human beings can be linked with destruction of hydogen or basalt. Something. Anything.

    /sarc.


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    • #
      john robertson

      Lifes little pleasures, finding out how little we know.
      When the eco-nutz get a grip on this idea, it will be save the ore-born lifeforms.
      Course if they(the rocks) prove to be intelligent it will be the first such life on earth and we can drop the nutz down mine shafts as part of a “scientific” study attempting to establish communication with the rocks.
      What could go wrong?

      On a more relevant note, remember how, not so long ago, life was considered to be rare in the universe.
      So Buddha was right.


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  • #
    DavidH

    I’m going to nit-pick and point out that 3.5 billion years is extraordinarily old for oceanic crust. Wikipedia says typically 200 million years … OK, I know it’s not always a reliable source but I’ve read the same number in various books. Oceanic crust is continuously “recycled” by subduction in the course of tectonic plate activity so it’s on average way younger than continental crust. If this bit of oceanic basalt was so old, it’s not typical of most oceanic basalt. Does the study extrapolate from this to most or all the ocean crust and if, so how do they justify it?

    Before anyone gets the wrong idea, no I’m not a warmist troll. Just taking a sceptical look at the information given.


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    • #
      Lank likes bugs

      In the linked Science Daily item it reads 3.5 million not billion.


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    • #
      will gray

      Hydrocarbon from living rock. Does this connect as to the seas of hydrocarbons on Saturns moon Titan. What if plate tectonics is wrong and suppose the earth is growing.


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    • #
      bananabender

      Oceanic crust is continuously “recycled” by subduction in the course of tectonic plate activity so it’s on average way younger than continental crust.

      Subduction is purely theoretical. It has never been observed anywhere on Earth. Subduction was invented because most geologists can’t accept that that the Earth may be constantly expanding.


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      • #
        KinkyKeith

        Hi BB

        Or perhaps the Earth is constantly COOLING.

        This may also help the tectonic plates to separate as they shrink.

        KK :)


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      • #
        will gray

        Watch the comets cometh. Earth was,is being constantly added to, like making a paper mashay ball, except earth is feeding expanding thanks to the sun and its gases.


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  • #
    Ace

    Living rock..what a nightmare, think how the Greenies will obsessionalise this one: we cannot even drill a hole for fear of literally “killing the planet”.

    Its also something of a shock to discover the one-time American fashion for pet rocks might have been more than tamagochi after all.


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  • #
    MikeF

    DavidH – the basalt sample being studied is 3.5 million years old, not 3.5 billion. That’s relatively young geologically, and well within the range for oceanic basalt.


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    • #
      DavidH

      D’oh. I read it a few times over trying to make sure I got things right. It’s amazing how persistent an initial misreading can be. Like programming bugs, you can read the same code over and over and still not see what a colleague will notice in seconds.

      Anyway, I hope I provided some interesting information on the general age of oceanic plates.


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  • #
    Ace

    Wasnt it Spock who was supposed to break this news: “Its life Jim but not as we know it”….before mind-melding with a “silicon based life form” that had been killing the miners.


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    • #
      Roy Hogue

      Wasnt it Spock who was supposed to break this news: “Its life Jim but not as we know it”….before mind-melding with a “silicon based life form” that had been killing the miners.

      Very appropriate, Ace. NASA is now studying Warp Drive according to Scientific American. I got time to read the whole article earlier today. All they need is to find some negative energy laying around (I thought of pointing them to John Brookes).

      Apparently Gene Roddenberry is now a science consultant to our space agency!? Will wonders never cease? Yesterdays Sci Fi is today’s reality — I can see it now, living rocks that can travel faster than the speed of light. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. ;-)


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  • #
    ExWarmist

    FADE IN:

    Sometime in 2056.

    CUE INTERIOR: RESEARCH VESSEL “Geomine 945″ – Owned by Geodynamics Inc, and currently boring it’s way through solid rock 10km beneath the surface of the Earth

    Geodynamics Inc – Company Science Consultant – Lorna Nightstrong speaks with excited awe…

    “…these tiny rivers of life are all interconnected on a planetary scale, they form a network of nodes with more connections than a human brain. The neural signal readings of my Neural-Meter are off the chart – it’s a planetary wide consciousness…”

    Chief Mining Engineer – Harvey “Wall” Wallington – speaks, rolls eyes…

    “Your’ve got to be kidding me. You think that this planet is literally alive & conscious, (pause – shakes head) is self aware.”

    Lorna – gestures widely, at the instrument packed walls of the tightly confined cabin of Geomine 945, indicating the solid rock beyond.
    “It’s alive, as alive as you and me – even more so.”

    Ships Pilot – Peter “Pete” Smith – at the front of the cabin in the pilots chair, stares intently forward at his instrument panel.

    CLOSE UP: The instrument panel, a hand on a dial slides rapidly to the right. A digital readout spins to a very large number, and a bright light flashes green.

    Peter Smith then whirls and whoops loudly.

    “Found it – an amazing ore body of Unobtanium 346”. It’s huge, – enough to power civilisation for at least 1000 years.”

    Lorna – exclaims wildly.

    “OMG – we have to leave it alone. Digging that big a hole here could kill the planetary mind.”

    Wall – Serious with clear intent.

    “Ms Nightstrong – Geodynamics have invested 14 million Texas New Dollars into this research mining mission – the shareholders expect a return and liberating this resource will fuel a golden age of civilisation and liberty with cheap energy.”

    Lorna – Shocked.

    “This is bigger than money or civilisation – My Neural-Meter says it’s a planetary consciousness with an IQ in excess of 400 – that’s super, super genius level.”

    Wall – Gestures dismissively.

    “Your Neural-Meter also says that the Stores Fridge is self aware, even after we took the fresh cabbages out – it dropped by half and still read positive for “Neural activity”.

    Lorna – Shocked and Dismayed.

    “How can you say that – my Neural-Meter has been officially validated by over 120 computer simulations – it absolutely works.”

    Wall – Rubs forehead with palm of his hand.

    “So you would back your “computer simulated” equipment against the clear needs of human civilisation?”

    Lorna – Emphatically.

    “Absolutely – everytime – this precious lifeform must be preserved at all costs.”

    Wall – Frowns and looks past her, then whispers to himself.

    “Shoulda built an effing air lock on this thing.”

    FADE OUT


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  • #
    RoHa

    “But who thought that all the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of basalt rock in between had its own life cycle?”

    Thomas Gold, maybe?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Gold


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  • #
    Shub

    Jo,

    RoHa beat me to it. The whole thing was guessed by Thomas Gold. I have two copies of his ‘The Deep Hot Biosphere’. There is a more accessible article in PNAS here(http://www.pnas.org/content/89/13/6045.full.pdf+html). It has been cited 443 times.

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.07/gold_pr.html <- a really old article about Gold


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  • #
    thingodonta

    It seems that ‘mineral extraction’ was a process invented by nature at the very dawn of life, and that benefits organisms at even the smallest level, but the greens, supposedly ‘attuned to nature’, still want to stop virtually all mining. Ironic isnt it?

    Actually, what they say about ‘climate change’, is that excessive mineral extraction, including from fossil fuels, releases gases which changes the atmosphere and ulimately destroys life. But throughout geological history, it is mostly the other way around, life flourishes when biotic mineral extraction rates and food production rates are high, such as with high C02 in the atmosphere and a warmer earth and rising and high sea levels, and becomes weak and vulnerable when the natural processes of mineral extraction by life weaken and decline, such as during colder periods, excessive volcanism, lowering sea levels, and low C02, and also after asteriod impacts which reduce sunlight reaching the earth shutting down photosythesis and food production. (Its a fair bit more complicated than this, but you get the picture, same as in human societies, they tend to do better when its warmer, such as in the Medieval Warm Period, and right now in the current warm period).

    Even agriculture is a form of mineral extraction, whereby soil minerals are extracted by plants and animals which process it into other forms, and so for that matter is eating, whereby the body extracts the minerals from that produced by agriculture for bodies and energy. So if the greens are so ‘attuned to nature’, how ironic is it that they are so much against human mining in virtually all its forms?; and think it is so ‘unnatural’? They dont even like calling mineral resources, ‘natural resources’, which by definition they are. (e.g. ‘Queensland Department of Natural Resources AND Mines’, from the early 2000s)

    Mining, meaning mineral extraction in all its forms, is a natural process that ALL life utilises, from day 1. And each time it becomes more sophisticated, or utulised better, life advances and becomes richer and more varied, such as when metallurgy was first discovered, just after the dawn of agriculture-which is also just another form of sophisticated ‘mineral extraction’ from the soil which advanced human civilisations (see above). Mineral extraction, in all its forms, has been going on since both the dawn of life and human history, and will be going on as long as human civilisation is around, as well as long afterwards.


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    • #
      Backslider

      I would love to see one of these anti mining greens go through life without anything at all that relies on mining… including their favorite hobby, pottery.


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  • #
    Mark D.

    Maybe the pet rock craze was WAAYYY ahead of it’s time?


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  • #
    Pat Frank

    The story leads one to think that native chemosynthetic life might exist interior to Mars. And who knows — there’s a bit of residual heat inside the moon that could power microbial life. Such deep life could exist without any external signature, such as outgassing of methane, because most or all reduced gases would be captured and metabolized.

    One also wonders now about IO and Europa. Their interiors are continually heated by gravitational stress from Jupiter. Likewise Triton about Neptune. Cryptic chemosynthetic life, Jim, but not as we know it could be widespread in the Solar System.


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    Senex Bibax

    I see two proplems if the AGW crowd latch on to this information.

    - The chemisynthesising microbes produce methane, which is a “greenhouse gas”.
    - They seize on the news as validation of the Gaia hypothesis


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  • #

    Plankton in the Oceans eating up the CO2 and microbes in the rocks living on hydrogen and water, and producing oil for us. What we know about how the Earth works is still far, far less than the amount that is available to be known eventually. What on earth is going on is still the greatest mystery on Earth.


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    dp

    This of course means we won’t be dumping our CO2 garbage in the deep sea floor trenches any time soon. The greenies would never allow it. Every cell is sacred, don’tcha know.


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  • #
    PhilJourdan

    The enormity of this finding is way understated! It turns the entire concept of life on its head! I hope to read more about this finding as they discover more about it. Thanks for bringing it to light!


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