In the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean, next to a piping hot undersea volcano, nearly 300 new lifeforms have been discovered.
An international team of researchers has found hundreds of never-before-seen types of microbial organisms living in scalding hot hydrothermal vents on a deep-sea volcano northeast of New Zealand, some 1,830 meters (6,000 feet) beneath the water's surface.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, documented a total of over 90 new bacterial and archaeal families, as well as nearly 300 new types of microbe genera in the hot springs on Brothers volcano.
Hydrothermally-active submarine volcanoes are underwater vents in the Earth's surface that can spew out magma, as well as acidic or alkaline water that's extremely hot. This might not sound like a welcoming place for life, but these microbes are extremophiles, known to thrive in environments that were once thought unable to sustain life.
“Microbes in hot springs everywhere get their energy in part from the geochemistry of the hot water/fluids. It's the same for the Brothers volcano seafloor hot springs,” Louise Reysenbach, Professor of Microbiology at Portland State University, said in a statement.
In their study of the life that inhabits the Brothers volcano, the researchers found two distinct communities of microbes that appear to vary due to the differences in temperature and acidity of the surrounding water. Unexpectedly, however, these very different microbial communities were found to live in close proximity with each other along the outer wall of the volcano.
Many scientists have speculated that all life on Earth may have originated in deep-sea vents, underwater geysers that pump out water that’s been heated to high temperatures by magma and other geothermal processes. So the theory goes, the vents create a petri dish where seawater comes into contact with minerals from the planet’s crust, reacting to create a warm, alkaline environment containing hydrogen. This would be an ideal place to foster the formation of protocells, thought to be a key stepping stone to the development of cell-based life. As further evidence of this idea, some of the oldest known fossils have been discovered among these kinds of hydrothermal vents.
Along with adding to our understanding of life on Earth, this new research from Brothers volcano could also teach us about other extreme environments on our planet, say the researchers.
“We're heading to a point where microbes can be very informative about the environment they came from and even reflect some of the past,” Mircea Podar, study author from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said in another statement. “With more data, we can use microbes as a proxy to characterize environments where traditional measurements are challenging to capture.”