Volcanoes may have helped life begin, but generally speaking, most people associate them with the eradication of life. Nothing, let alone DNA, can survive in the extreme heat and acidity of a fresh lava flow.
That’s why, when a brand new bacterial species was found colonizing an underwater volcano shortly after it had erupted, and consequently wiped out all other forms of life just beforehand, the team of observing scientists were a little taken aback.
As reported in Nature Ecology & Evolution, this particular bacteria didn’t just survive the blast, but it thrived in the apocalyptic environment afterwards, which makes it an unbelievably adaptive, and extremely tough, new species indeed.
Back in 2011, an underwater volcano off the coast of the Canary Islands began to erupt quite explosively right through into 2012. Lava reaching temperatures of 1,000°C (1,832°F) burst forth from the Tagoro seamount, rapidly sterilizing the environment. Extremely sulfuric, toxic gases saturated the waters nearby, and blast shockwaves shattered the seafloor itself.
As observed at the time by a team led by the Polytechnic University of Marche in Italy, all forms of flora and fauna, from the largest fish to the smallest microorganisms and plants, were annihilated. The area was bereft of life.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the team returned to take a look at the post-apocalyptic submarine world. To their great surprise, the entire region had been taken over by massive microbial mats, huge collections of bacteria working together. Using remotely operated vehicles, they took samples, analyzed them, and found that they were all comprised of a previously unidentified genus and species of bacteria.
Epifluorescence micrograph of a single Thiolava veneris filament picked from the solid lava substrate. Roberto Danovaro
They named it Thiolava veneris. “Thio” comes from the Greek word for sulfur, which refers to its ability to live among powerful sulfur compounds. “Lava” refers to the environment in which it emerged, and its species name “veneris” is a reference to Venus, the ancient Roman goddess of beauty and love.
The team have nicknamed it “Venus’s hair” thanks to its strand-like appearance.
As this bacteria thrives in its hostile environment, it is classified as a type of “extremophile”. It appears to use the sulfur and nitrate effusions to generate energy, and it’s likely that the destruction of all former life allowed it to quickly swoop in and colonize the shattered underwater volcano.
It’s long been known that there are extremophiles in every single hostile environment on the planet, from beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet to within superheated, deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
However, this bacteria was found immediately colonizing a post-eruption surface, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Far from being wary of it, they’re even using the volcanic heat itself to help their metabolic processes operate. This mechanism, then, could even hint at how alien life on other volcanic planets and moons could exist.
Rather wonderfully, the emergence of T. veneris doesn’t just show how life finds a way to keep itself going even in the event of a devastating natural disaster. The emergence of bacteria tends to eventually support the colonization of the area by larger and more complex forms of life, and indeed, this is what the team observed at Tagoro.
“A specialized and highly diverse food web thrives on the complex three-dimensional habitat formed by these microorganisms,” the team note in their study. “This provides evidence that Venus’s hair can drive the restart of biological systems after submarine volcanic eruptions.”
So, far from being an opportunistic thief, this particular bacteria could provide the foundations for a new bastion of biodiversity deep beneath the waves.
Could we find the “cousins” of Venus’s Hair on other volcanically active worlds? Roberto Danovaro
All things considered, there’s a chance that this biofilm found at Tagoro resembles the very first complex colony of life that appeared on planet Earth all those billions of years ago.