“Worms from hell” found – in a place nobody thought they could live

This might have some impact on the search for extraterrestrial life. If these things can live in this sort of hostile environment, perhaps we’ll find similar life forms below the surface of other planets, such as Mars, which may have had surface life at one time.

Halicephalobus mephisto found 1.3 kilometers deep in a South African mine. Credit: Gaetan Borgonie/University of Ghent

Subterranean worms from hell

New species of nematode discovered more than a kilometre underground.

From Nature News, Nadia Drake

The discovery of multicellular creatures from the deepest mines sounds like something from the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien. But scientists have now found four species of nematode, or roundworm, lurking in South Africa’s gold mines at depths where only single-celled bacteria were thought to reside. And at least one of them, Halicephalobus mephisto, has never been described before.

The 0.5-millimetre-long H. mephisto, named in reference to the light-hating demon of the underworld, feeds on films of bacteria that grow more than a kilometre down within the warm walls of the Beatrix gold mine, located some 240 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg.

“It’s like 1 million times the size of the bacteria it eats — sort of like finding Moby Dick in Lake Ontario,” says Tullis Onstott, a geomicrobiologist at Princeton University in New Jersey and a co-author of the study, which is published today in Nature1.

Deep dwellers

Previously, nematodes had been found nearer the surface, with only bacterial populations living deeper down2,3. But the authors discovered H. mephisto existing happily at 1.3 km down — at which depth the temperature reaches around 37 °C, higher than most terrestrial nematodes can tolerate.

Different South African mines revealed other deep-dwelling roundworms. Two nematode species — one identified as Plectus aquatilis and one unknown species from the Monhysterid order — were found in the Driefontein mines at a depth of 0.9 km at 24 °C. The authors also recovered DNA from a second unknown monhysterid species in the Tau Tona mine, 3.6 kilometres down, where temperatures hover around 48 °C.

Finding the worms surprised even the study’s authors. “When I proposed to look in the deep underground, this was a complete ‘out of the box’ idea,” says nematologist Gaetan Borgonie, of the University of Ghent in Belgium. “It doesn’t happen often that you can redraw the boundaries of a biosphere on a planet.”

“That depth? Those temperatures? This is incredible,” says Diana Wall, a soil ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who studies antarctic nematodes.

full story here

Nematoda from the terrestrial deep subsurface of South Africa

G. Borgonie, A. García-Moyano, D. Litthauer, W. Bert, A. Bester, E. van Heerden, C. Möller, M. Erasmus & T. C. Onstott

Nature 474, 79–82 (02 June 2011) doi:10.1038/nature09974

Received 15 February 2011 Accepted 01 March 2011 Published online 01 June 2011

Since its discovery over two decades ago, the deep subsurface biosphere has been considered to be the realm of single-cell organisms, extending over three kilometres into the Earth’s crust and comprising a significant fraction of the global biosphere1, 2, 3, 4. The constraints of temperature, energy, dioxygen and space seemed to preclude the possibility of more-complex, multicellular organisms from surviving at these depths. Here we report species of the phylum Nematoda that have been detected in or recovered from 0.9–3.6-kilometre-deep fracture water in the deep mines of South Africa but have not been detected in the mining water. These subsurface nematodes, including a new species, Halicephalobus mephisto, tolerate high temperature, reproduce asexually and preferentially feed upon subsurface bacteria. Carbon-14 data indicate that the fracture water in which the nematodes reside is 3,000–12,000-year-old palaeometeoric water. Our data suggest that nematodes should be found in other deep hypoxic settings where temperature permits, and that they may control the microbial population density by grazing on fracture surface biofilm patches. Our results expand the known metazoan biosphere and demonstrate that deep ecosystems are more complex than previously accepted. The discovery of multicellular life in the deep subsurface of the Earth also has important implications for the search for subsurface life on other planets in our Solar System.

h/t Dave Stealey

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41 thoughts on ““Worms from hell” found – in a place nobody thought they could live

  1. Well, I was interested until I read the temps. How can this hold any implications for alien life when we’re only talking 37 to 48 degrees Cent.?? That’s not that extreme. Seems like another stretch to keep sci-fi “scientists” in the news.

  2. Hamlet:
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    Interesting that earlier in this passage from Hamlet, the ghost is referred to as a “pioner”, which is a miner. Maybe we should mine Shakespeare for more clues about where to look for knowledge. ;>)

  3. And no possibility that the South African gold mines were ‘contaminated’ with roundworms by miners?

  4. John S. says:
    June 2, 2011 at 8:46 am

    My thoughts exactly! Would the worms be there if there weren’t miners there also? Inquiring minds want to know.

  5. 37 C is human body temperature. Not exactly inhospitable for multicellular animals.

    What strikes me as interesting in the article is that the “fracture water” is 3000-year-old rain!

  6. Just for reference, 37C is body temp, and there are many parasitic nematodes that survive just fine in us at that temp. The fact some soil dwellers manage that shouldn’t be too surprising.

  7. My first thought as I saw the photo: Dune
    Than I realised the size they have :-(

  8. The worms were promptly classified “endangered” and the mine was placed designated as a natural preserve… oh wait, South Africa, never mind, exploit away.

  9. Wonder how long it will be before environmentalists try to halt mining in order to protect these little buggers.

  10. Thomas gold – Deep hot biosphere 1992: same goes with methane and shale fracking, remarkable how his theory just keeps on giving

  11. “Worms from hell”??? I think both of my state senators are from this phylum……

  12. It isn’t the idea that life might exist in conditions that are extreme on Earth, but that might be extreme in a place like Mars. The surface conditions are very challenging, however, deeper down, there might be plenty of liquid water, much warmer temperatures, and thriving life living on chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis. Just don’t expect the same DNA, amino acids, or genetic code like here.

  13. You could’ve picked a photo of the head end of the worm, rather than its chocolate starfish! :P

  14. ” These subsurface nematodes, including a new species,”

    That reduces the extinct species count by one, no?

  15. What is it with South Africa’s gold mines?

    BBC – 10 October 2008
    A bug which lives entirely on its own and survives without oxygen in complete darkness underground has been discovered in South Africa.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7663927.stm

    Independent Online – 8 November 2006
    Newly discovered but ancient bacteria at the bottom of gold mines near Carletonville have led a team of international scientists to believe there could be life below the surface of Mars.

    A study on the find, published recently in the international journal Science, said the microbes appeared to have survived for tens of millions of years living on hydrogen and sulphate, and not oxygen.

    http://www.iol.co.za/scitech/technology/mine-bacteria-stir-speculation-about-mars-1.302131

  16. @Grant from Calgary: Yes, I have encountered proponents of the Bacon authorship. There is a connection between the man who first proposed scientific methodologies (Bacon), eschewing Aristotle’s syllogistic reasoning, and the men who today tell us the science is settled. Based on syllogistic reasoning.

  17. 37 C isn’t an extreme temperature at all for soil-bourne nematodes, that’s near optimum temperature for root knot and sting nematodes.

  18. I think I was wrong when I said
    “37 C isn’t an extreme temperature at all for soil-bourne nematodes, that’s near optimum temperature for root knot and sting nematodes.”
    Optimum is probably around 27 to 30 C, but I do know it needs to be at least 50C to begin killing them. I need to do this every summer before I plant the fall garden here in Florida.

  19. Not nematodes, not alive now but deep …. First from Russia

    http://www.damninteresting.com/the-deepest-hole

    Even more surprisingly, this deep rock was found to be saturated in water which filled the cracks. Because free water should not be found at those depths, scientists theorize that the water is comprised of hydrogen and oxygen atoms which were squeezed out of the surrounding rocks due to the incredible pressure. The water was then prevented from rising to the surface because of the layer of impermeable rocks above it. Another unexpected find was a menagerie of microscopic fossils as deep as 6.7 kilometers below the surface. Twenty-four distinct species of plankton microfossils were found, and they were discovered to have carbon and nitrogen coverings rather than the typical limestone or silica. Despite the harsh environment of heat and pressure, the microscopic remains were remarkably intact.
    Then from Honolulu http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-12/osu-bdc123003.php
    “Results of the study were published in the December issue of Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, a journal published by the American Geophysical Union and the Geochemical Society.
    “We identified the bacteria in a core sample taken at 1,350 meters,” said Fisk, who is lead author on the article. “We think there could be bacteria living at the bottom of the hole, some 3,000 meters below the surface. If microorganisms can live in these kinds of conditions on Earth, it is conceivable they could exist below the surface on Mars as well…..The study is important, researchers say, because it provides scientists with another theory about where life may be found on other planets. Microorganisms in subsurface environments on our own planet comprise a significant fraction of the Earth’s biomass, with estimates ranging from 5 percent to 50 percent, the researchers point out.”

  20. Geoff Sherrington,

    Thanks for those links. The world is more amazing than we can conceive. I suspect that we don’t even know all the creatures, from viruses to flaggelates, that live in a cubic centimetre of sea water.

  21. I get really irritated by all this talk about the “search for extraterrestrial life”. Like we need a justification to go study Mars, Enceladus, Titan, etc. How about this justification? We’re scientists…it’s what we do. These guys act like if you have certain conditions…boom!…life arises. It happens all the time, we promise. Ok, if you say so.

  22. Sauna temperatures are usually 66–90°C (150-194 degrees F). Not surprising that multicellular worms can survive at 37-48°C, this is just more hype to get the public interested in an otherwise boring story.

  23. The discovery of multicellular creatures from the deepest mines sounds like something from the pages of J. R. R. TolkienH. P. Lovecraft.

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