Extreme "Venus's Hair" Lifeform Found Thriving On Freshly Erupted Lava

The lava had only just solidified and bacteria were found all over it. Allen.G/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 24 Apr 2017, 16:00

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.

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