Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Underwater Microbe Invasion

Perhaps it is not an invasion, but it is surprising. A while back I posted about a huge biomass living 1.6 kilometers beneath the sea floor. Well, these are not the same critters. But they are just as interesting. While scientists have not ruled out whether they prove the existence of a shoggoth or Ubbo-Sathla, researchers have decided that these sturdy micro-organisms do account for nearly one-tenth of the biomass on Earth. That is one HUGE biomass. And while these critters are living on a geologic timescale - meaning they live for several centuries - it seems they do interact with the environment. Quoting one of the scientists involved in the investigation:

These microbes influence the Earth's long-term carbon cycle and also these microbes may be quite ancient.
So what's the big deal about such small things? Other than the vast quantity, researchers are now suggesting that similar creatures could live in other locations in our solar system - citing Jupiter's moon Europa as one of the many potential locations (these worlds belong to you, except Europa - quote from the novel 2010).

For those following this sort of news, predicting life on Europa isn't new. Really, it is probably a "safe bet." It is an icy body in space with what is believed to be a sub-surface ocean. So beneath that ocean surface could be lurking the elusive shoggoth.

11 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

And maybe the outer solar system biomasses are in communication with OUR biomass. Is that the sound of humanity's reign crashing down?

William Jones said...

Charles - I see a film in that scenario! But don't think it too loudly. They might be listening.

Jeff Edwards said...

It seems that this has been a great year for science headlines that would translate well into dark fiction.

Last year, I subscribed to WIRED and planned to mine it for story ideas. I never read a single issue. But, I do have a year's worth of the magazine in a pile that I may leaf through one day...

-Jeff

Steve Buchheit said...

Some ridiculously large percentage of the world's oxygen (10-20% if I remember correctly) is produced by microbes that live in the top meter of ocean water (and for the life of me I can't remember their name, there's whole scientific conferences dedicated to studying them). The world is indeed stranger than we ever thought. Saturn has water ice and rain in it's upper atmosphere, Cassini has photos of snow in the southern whirlwind. Huge swaths of atmospheric layers could be inhabited by airborn microscopic life, a veritable primordial soup.

Voland said...

That is amazing news. It gives you an idea about what we should be looking for on Mars too (responsible for all that methane, maybe) - as well as Titan, Enceladus, etc, etc.

There's something wonderfully Stapledonian about every planet having its own biomass-component - eternal, unchanging, whilst those funny critters with their new-fangled evolution thing dash around madly on the surface.

It's thought-provoking too to consider Panspermia in the light of these potential biomasses. Conventional current wisdom says that alien life is going to be *very* alien and utterly different from our terrestrial life - and yet if many planets have what are effectively Panspermia-distributed biomasses, you could argue a case for features to be shared in common from planet to planet. Maybe aliens with arms and legs and a head somewhere about aren't too far-fetched after all.

I also love the idea of Panspermia-distributed biomasses colonizing planets and modifying the environment to make it more congenial to them. It looks more and more like life could be just about everywhere. Marvellous.

Vwriter said...

Steve, if your referring to cyanobacteria and eukaryotic microalgae, they are interesting critters indeed. It's generally agreed that only cyanobacteria can produce oxygen as a by-product of their metabolic processes. Much of of the current wrangling involves a precise dating of their first appearance on earth and what the impact was on the earth's atmosphere.

Back to the prokaryotes comprising the biomass, however- although many scientis were exciting to find them at such great depths to evaluate their metabolic processes to determine if and how they utilized oxygen, another, more sinister concern has arisen.

The prokaryotes are under serious pressure and squished together like nowhere else on the planet. In fact, the high density of microbial cells pushed together in this biomass are about 100 to 1000-fold greater in number per volume than anywhere found on the surface.

Remember traffic jams in LA and flared tempers. Violence follows when people or rats or prokaryotes run out of elbow room. Scientists are now worried that the biomass inhabitants are getting angry.

They don't like being squished together at the bottom the ocean. They know we have more room up here. They don't like us because we won't share. They've been down there thinking a long time...

The Art of Christopher Hill said...

perhaps a graphic novel to peek interest would be in order :)


Chris

William Jones said...

Jeff - You're quite right. Every time I read one of these articles, I get quite a few ideas. Sure, similar ideas have been bouncing around in SF for years, but when SF becomes a "possiblity," then the material moves out of SF and into other forms of ficiton.

Steve - If anything, we keep learning that life does exist in the places where we, humans, decided it simply couldn't exist (such hubris) :-). Moons like those you mentioned to set the imagination aflame.

William Jones said...

Voland - In the "eyes" of these bacteria, "the whole evolution fade" does seem quite like a passing thing. I believe the arugument goes, "to be the dominant species, intelligence is required." Or that was once the argument. I'm not sure humanity can even hold that claim any longer. ;->

You're correct, this does twist John Campbell's "alien life must be very alien" theory. If life was sprinkled by a floating space rock, or say an insane space canister, then there will be some comminality, and it does question that old H.G. Wells defense of "mankind earned" its place on Earth with countless deaths to bacteria and viruses. Certainly the Martians won't show up with natural immunity, but that's why they need to kidnap up. Viral serum immunity. ;-)

William Jones said...

Vwriter - I'll let you and Steve continue the conversation about anarobic bacteria and various other variations. That is important to how we view life, and where we find it. But I'm trying to remain "light" this week, and I see a lengthy post if I join in the conversation! But that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to read it.

William Jones said...

Chris - The story would be easier to pitch if the author were an artist. :) I wonder what a few panels would look like?