Each Other — Where We Are SANDRA STEINGRABER
In defense of underground organisms
SUPPOSE THE PLANET’S deep geo- logical strata contained life. I don’t mean “life” in a healing crystal,
Mother Earth sort of way. I’m talking about
life in the blood-and-guts Darwinian sense:
procreating, calorie-seeking, membrane-swaddled, metabolically active existence.
Suppose we found out that the radioactive, magma-warmed rocks miles below
our feet housed complex communities
of organisms? What if we knew that the
planet’s mineral under world — symbol
of everything dead, devoid, inert, and
unresponsive—was actually an ecosystem—a kind of underground coral
reef—and, as such, was part of the biosphere? How would such a discovery
change our worldview? And how might it
change how we behaved up here on the
In fact, this is the discovery — although it
is not a new one, and other than spawning
the obscure field of geomicrobiology, it has
yet to penetrate the larger culture. A Russian
paper published in 1940, quaintly titled “On
the Microorganisms of the Lower Limits of
the Biosphere,” broke the story: the curious
“pink water” that gushed up from deep oil
wells in Azerbaijan contained a previously
undescribed bacterium that, when cultured
in the laboratory in the absence of air,
turned a brilliant purple. These organisms
appeared to be true “relics” from the deep
and not contaminants introduced by the
drill heads. If so, conceded the author, the
biosphere must be said to extend a mile or
more into the dark heart of the planet.
What if we knew that the planet’s mineral underworld was
actually an ecosystem?
blank stares both within and without
the world of science. But the paradigm-shifting findings keep piling up: Underworld microbiota can join together to form
highly organized colonies. In place of electron transport systems, they grow electrically conductive nanowires and transfer
electrons into the minerals around them.
Many use hydrogen as an energy source.
At least one runs on the energy released
through radioactive decay. Some have arsenic instead of phosphorus in their DNA.
And this: by weight, more than half
of all life on Earth likely lies within deep
Instead, it propelled me into my own back-
yard to lie on the grass and think once again
about the Marcellus Shale, the bedrock be-
low me, that old methane-pocked seafloor
sprawled below upstate New York, which
now lies firmly in the crosshairs of the
world’s biggest energy companies. Their
plan, which creeps ever closer, is to blanket
the aboveground landscape with drill rigs,
condensers, and pipelines and blast the
subterranean landscape with explosives,
chemicals, and immense amounts of water
until the shale layer a mile below fractures
and gives up its gas. That’s called fracking.