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Environment

A thriving ecosytem beneath the earth's surface

media Nematodes from the deep Gaetan Borgonie via Facebook Deep Carbon Observatory

We know that scientists have been looking for life in space. But now, a project by scientists around the world has found life teeming beneath the surface of the Earth. The Deep Carbon Observatory project has released findings that point to the existence of a deep subterranean ecosystem that's twice the size of the world's oceans.

The 10-year project has involved 12 hundred scientists from 52 countries.

The findings show that this deep biosphere goes down several kilometres into the earth’s crust.

Reason to look underground?

Benedicte Menez is involved in the DCO project in France. She heads the Geomicrobiology lab at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, or the Institute of Physics of the Globe in Paris.

Listen to the full interview with Benedicte Menez, part of the DCO project

She says the initiative behind this project was simply “we really knew very little about deep carbon, its forms, origins and movements within the earth," adding the impetus for more research came at a time in the late 1990s when more proof was emerging to the presence of life in rocks, but not to the extent of its activity. "It was an unknown that we had to tackle."

“It was an unknown that we had to tackle”
Benedicte Menez

Meaning to a non-scientist?

Quite simply: there is life living underground in rocks. But this life is not sustained by normal standards that we learn in school, such as with oxygen and sunlight. But rather this life depends on the “energy that [is] provided by rocks and the minerals in the rocks”.

So underground we have microbes participating in chemical reactions and “equilibria”. And if this live is active beneath ground, then “it certainly plays a role in the chemistry of the atmosphere, in the oceans and in the formation and destruction of rocks.”

Application of such a life

With much news surrounding climate change, in particular the atmosphere, Menez says that to better understand all the ecosystems, one must know what role these microbes play in the grand scheme of things.

“So knowing their extent is really important to make good models.”

But because these microbes have a different DNA than those found at the earth’s surface, it is possible that new molecules and enzymes will be discovered which can be used for particular situations.

Another usage can be in the field of geo-engineering, for example to store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (going back to our climate problem) and to store nuclear waste.

“Up until now” adds Menez, “most of these areas only considered the subsurface as a sterile place and if we consider that we have microbes there that can play a role in the safety of the containment because they can alter rocks, they can use the CO2 [carbon dioxide] you want to store in the underground, so we have to take them into account if we want to do safe operation in the subsurface.”

 

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