Saturday, July 26, 2008

Unique Habitat Found Inside Earth

Researchers studying life in the deep subsurface of our planet have discovered a unique bacterium living 1 mile (1.7 km) below the Earth's surface. The tiny bacteria live in a community of subsurface microbes inhabiting a South African platinum mine.

The deep subsurface of Earth harbors many unique microbes that are only accessible through large scale drilling projects or mining. By trekking into the ultra-deep mines of South Africa, researchers are getting a rare glimpse into this unique habitat. In the depths of South Africa's Northam Platinum mine, scientists from the University of Western Ontario and Princeton University have gained access to many previously undiscovered microbial communities.

While mining and drilling allow scientists to sample the unique environment below the Earth's soil, these activities obviously disturb the subsurface of the planet. Digging into the ground disrupts the microbial communities that live there. When people enter mines and caves, they bring with them a massive number of non-native microbes. Because of this, it's difficult to get uncontaminated samples.

The team from the recent study decided to test samples from mines in order to determine just how contaminated they really are. They collected samples from slime, or biofilm, growing on the walls of the Northam mine in South Africa. An explosion of life occurs where subsurface water leaks out of the mine walls and meets with oxygen, leading to films of microscopic organisms.

Previously, researchers overlooked these biofilms because they thought the films would be too heavily contaminated. To test this theory, the team determined whether or not their biofilms were formed by contaminant organisms from the surface, or by unique subsurface organisms.

The study, by Greg Wanger, Tullis Onstott and Gordon Southam, was published in a recent edition of the journal Geobiology.

The authors showed that the biofilms contained a number of unique organisms associated with the deep subsurface, and therefore such films might be an excellent place to search for new and unusual species of microbes. In fact, in their study the team came across one particularly strange microbe shaped like a tiny, microscopic star. - continued on yahoo

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