There is life 2.2 miles beneath the earth, say scientists Gaetan Borgonie of the University of Ghent in Belgium and Tullis Onstott of Princeton University. In an article the appeared last week in Nature, Borgonia and Onstott describe their discovery of the new “devil worms,” a new nematode species, called Halicephalobus mephisto partly after Mephistopheles, the demon of the legend of Dr. Faustus. The 0.5 millimeter worms were found in water coming out of a borehole about a mile below the surface in the South African Beatrix gold mine.
Nematodes have been been found dozens of feet below the ground, but, as National Geographic notes, only microbes were thought to exist so deep down. As it turns out, such microbes are the food of the nematodes.
The discovery of the worms — of creatures who have nervous, digestive and reproductive systems — holds fascinating implications in the study of microbial life known as extremophiles, which live in places thought uninhabitable. Says Onstott in the Washington Post:
“This is telling us something brand new…. For a relatively complex creature like a nematode to penetrate that deep is simply remarkable.”
Indeed, Onstatt compares finding the nematodes to “finding a whale in Lake Ontario.”
National Geographic describes how the sub-sub-subterranean creatures were found:
…Borgonie spent a year boring deep into mines for veins of water, retrieving samples and filtering them for water-dwelling nematodes. He scoured a total of 8,343 gallons (31,582 liters) until he finally found the worm in several deep-rock samples.
What’s more, the team found evidence the worms have been there for thousands of years. Isotope dating of the water housing the worm placed it to between 3,000 and 12,000 years ago—indicating the animals had evolved to survive the crushing pressure and high heat of the depths.
Scientists seeking life beyond Earth are intrigued by the possibility that microbes could be living below the surface of Mars, in particular — a planet that is now cold, dry and bombarded by harmful radiation but was once much wetter, warmer and better-protected by an atmosphere.
“What we found shows that harsh conditions do not necessarily exclude complexity,” Borgonie said.
He said that if life did originate on Mars and if it had sufficient time to go underground deep enough to survive worsening conditions, “then evolution of Martian life might have continued underground. … Life on Mars could be more complex than we imagined.”
Or as Onstott says, as we continue the search for extraterrestrial life, we have to look not only at what’s on the surface of other planets, but what is below it:
“We can’t negate the thought of looking for little green worms as opposed to little green microbes.”