Scientists poke and prod at the fringes of habitability in pursuit of life’s limits. To that end, they have tunneled kilometers below Earth’s surface, drilling outward from the bottoms of mine shafts and sinking boreholes deep into ocean sediments. To their surprise, “life was everywhere that we looked,” said Tori Hoehler, a chemist and astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. And it was present in staggering quantities: By various estimates, the inhabited subsurface realm has twice the volume of the oceans and holds on the order of 1030 cells, making it one of the biggest habitats on the planet, as well as one of the oldest and most diverse.
Researchers are still trying to understand how most of the life down there survives. Sunlight for photosynthesis cannot reach such depths, and the meager amount of organic carbon food that does is often quickly exhausted. Unlike communities of organisms that dwell near hydrothermal vents on the seafloor or within continental regions warmed by volcanic activity, ecosystems here generally can’t rely on the high-temperature processes that support some subsurface life independent of photosynthesis; these microbes must hang on in deep cold and darkness.
Two papers appearing in February by different research groups now seem to have solved some of this mystery for cells beneath the continents and in deep marine sediments. They find evidence that, much as the sun’s nuclear fusion reactions provide energy to the surface world, a different kind of nuclear process — radioactive decay — can sustain life deep below the surface. Radiation from unstable atoms in rocks can split water molecules into hydrogen and chemically reactive peroxides and radicals; some cells can use the hydrogen as fuel directly, while the remaining products turn minerals and other surrounding compounds into additional energy sources.
Although these radiolytic reactions yield energy far more slowly than the sun and underground thermal processes, the researchers have shown that they are fast enough to be key drivers of microbial activity in a broad range of settings — and that they are responsible for a diverse pool of organic molecules and other chemicals important to life. According to Jack Mustard, a planetary geologist at Brown University who was not involved in the new work, the radiolysis explanation has “opened up whole new vistas” into what life could look like, how it might have emerged on an early Earth, and where else in the universe it might one day be found. [Continue reading…]