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One of the real surprises to me in college was…bacteria.  Now I had encountered these characters before (I guess everybody has, since more of the cells in a human body are symbiotic bacteria living inside of us than are…well our own actual cells).  However, in college I learned the full history of life on Earth.  It is mostly a history of bacteria:  multicellular creatures only show up for the last 600 million years.  For over 3 billion years, the world belonged to the bacteria alone.  I also learned about extremophiles—bacteria that can live in boiling hot temperatures or in oxygen-free environments.  Some extremophiles can metabolize inorganic things like sulfur and arsenic.  They can live without the light of the sun in the fathomless depths of the ocean on poisonous elements. The oxygen we breath was created as a waste product by these first archaebacteria.  The planet’s atmosphere was once a reducing atmosphere, where paper would not burn (assuming you had any…billions of years before trees plants evolved, much less paper-makers).  Bacteria made it an oxygen world where things burn…including our metabolisms. They changed the world in a fundamental way that we industrial humans with our infernal carbons cannot match.

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The archaebacteria sound like aliens (indeed, there is a real possibility they actually originally were aliens), but they are also our great-great-great ever-so-great-to-the-100th power grandparents.  I don’t need to wonder whether evolution is real: I have seen it in a science lab when we put a pellet of penicillin on a petri dish and watched as the bacteria evolved resistance to it (not really a super-smart experiment in hindsight, but a super-compelling one). I wish I could impress upon you how astonishing bacteria are.  They are the true sacred seed of life–the undisputed masters of Earth.

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However, this is old news.  The new news is that there are so, so many more bacteria than we realized.  The earth beneath our feet is filled with bacteria…but the stone beneath that is filled with bacteria too.  And the weird hot putty beneath that stone (the gabbro) is also filled with bacteria.  There are bacteria in the depths of the world.  Living bacteria have been discovered in the gabbro 1400 meters beneath the basalt floor of the ocean.  There is a barely discovered world of secret life deep beneath our feet—a true underworld of secret unknown species of micro-organisms.  The size of this ecosystem is enormous.

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To quote a news article from..yesterday,  “The record depth at which life has been found in the continental subsurface is approximately 3 miles (5km) while the record in marine waters is 6.5 miles (10.5km) from the ocean surface.”

If these are the true boundaries of the underworld bacteria biome, it means that there is a region of secret life twice as large as all of the world’s oceans combined.  Based on past experience though, it is not unreasonable to doubt that deeper pockets of bacteria will be discovered as our drilling and bio-assaying become more sophisticated.

Most of the super deep bacteria spend enormously long periods in suspended animation.  Sometimes they enter a metabolic suspension so profound that they seem dead or inanimate (which is maybe how we missed them for so long).  At present, scientists and writers are calling them “zombie-bacteria” because of their half-alive status (which seems like an appropriate nomen based on their underworld habitat).

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I wish I could tell you more about this realm of life on Earth, but I can’t.  Not only am I not a bacteriologist or geologist, additionally we (meaning all of humankind) simply don’t know the answers yet.  More research is necessary.  Sadly, it is probably going to be slow to materialize.  Our leaders seem incapable of grasping that surface life needs to continue longer than a few decades (at least if they hope for meaningful long term economic growth).  I shudder to imagine them furrowing their brows at the concept of vast stone oceans of zombie one-celled organisms…and explaining to their constituents why we need to know more about such things.  But we DO need to know.  In the synthetic ecosystems of my youth, the lack of coherent sustainable bacterial communities was the root cause of disastrous failure.  I don’t think our new underworld friends are going to fail or die any time soon, no matter what we surface beings do, yet if we want to take life elsewhere than Earth we are going to need to understand them much better.  Perhaps life did not spring from some pool of irradiated scum or arrive on a comet from beyond the solar system.  Maybe it came from the hot depths.  Maybe we are all underworld beings.

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