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The bugs beneath us.

The bugs beneath us

For the better part of this century, biological dogma had life clinging to a very thin skin on the surface of the earth, essentially extending only as deep as the root zone. Improved tools and techniques have pushed that limit down to 25 or 30 feet in the past decade (SN:11/26/83, p.348). Now a multi-institution effort sponsored by Du Pont and U.S. Department of Energy has found life 850 feet below the earth's surface.

"There is life down there, and it is very diverse," says Carl Fliermans of Du Pont's Savannah River Laboratory in Aiken, S.C. The numbers are high enough to affect the chemistry of the environment: Some of the samples contained as many as 10 million organisms per gram of soil.

But even more surprising than the high concentrations is the diversity of the microorganisms, according to David Balkwill of Florida State University in Tallahassee. Many varieties of bacteria and fungi have been seen, and there have been indications of amoeba. And the diversity-- which doesn't appear to decrease with depth--may force a reappraisal of the environment that lies between soil and bedrock. "You expect the species to fall off as the environment becomes more severe," says Balkwill. "Maybe it's not becoming more severe."

The downward extension of life may also change our ideas about the way pollutants behave in deep aquifers, say the researchers, since previous models didn't include a biological component. The deep subsurface organisms may be degrading some chemicals; if they're not already, genetic manipulation may get them to start. "[At these depths] we're talking about aquifers that are used by public for drinking water," says Fliermans. "Do you have organisms that are already adapted for these aquifers, and can they clean up aquifers that man has polluted?"

Adds Balkwill, "if genetic engineering can get organisms that already live at those depths to digest specific chemicals, they'll have a better chance of success than if they try to make surface species adapt to a new environment as well as a new diet."
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Title Annotation:life found 850 feet below earth's surface
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 26, 1986
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