Worms from Hell

Some more interesting news from the world of science. According to this article in the Washington Post, scientists Gaetan Borgonie and Tullis Onstott have found nematodes or roundworms living more than a mile beneath the earth’s surface. They found them in the Beatrix gold mine. It is quite a discovery since no one had thought such complex organisms could live so far underground.

“This is telling us something brand new,” said Onstott, whose pioneering work in South Africa over the past decade has revolutionized the understanding of microbial life known generally as extremophiles, which live in places long believed to be uninhabitable.

“For a relatively complex creature like a nematode to penetrate that deep is simply remarkable,” he said.

An article introducing the subterranean nematodes, one of which was formally named Halicephalobus mephisto after the “Lord of the Underworld,” appears in Wednesday’s edition of the journal Nature. H. mephisto was found in water flowing from a borehole about one mile below the surface in the Beatrix gold mine.

Borgonie said that although nematodes are known to exist on the deep ocean floor, they have generally not been found more than 10 to 20 feet below the surface of the ground or the ocean bed. But he saw no reason they wouldn’t be found farther down. The nematodes he ultimately discovered live in extremely hot water coming from boreholes fed by rock fissures and pools.

 

This is especially promising in the search for extraterrestrial life, since on a planet like Mars, under the surface could be more hospitable for life than the surface.

Most life on earth, that we are familiar with, is dependent on the process of photosynthesis, either directly or indirectly. Obviously this is not an option a mile underground. These nematodes feed on bacteria who gain nourishment from molecules broken up by the heat of radioactive decay.

The world is stranger and more wonderful than we can imagine.

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