A parallel universe of life exists hidden beneath our planet's ocean floors and could help us search for life on other planets, new research claims.
An international team of scientists found evidence of tiny creatures living inside the basalt of the Pacific Ocean floor - covered by 2.5km of water and hundreds of metres of sediment.
The results of their studies, published today in the journal Science, have revealed evidence of a vast ecosystem whose characteristics are entirely different from any previously investigated.
Core samples taken from the sea floor off the west coast of the U.S. contained traces of micro-organisms living in the total absence of light, and almost entirely disconnected from the world above.
'We're providing the first direct evidence of life in the deeply buried oceanic crust,' said microbiologist Mark Lever, who worked on the study as a PhD student at North Carolina.
'Our findings suggest that this spatially vast ecosystem is largely supported by chemosynthesis.'
It's widely held that sunlight is a prerequisite for life on Earth. Photosynthetic organisms use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into organic material that makes up the foundation of Earth's food chains.
But life in the porous rock material in the oceanic crust is fundamentally different. Energy – and therefore life's driving force – derives from geochemical processes.
'There are small veins in the basaltic oceanic crust and water runs through them,' said Dr Lever, who is now a scientist at the Centre for Geomicrobiology at Aarhus University in Denmark.
'The water probably reacts with reduced iron compounds, such as olivine, in the basalt and releases hydrogen. Microorganisms use the hydrogen as a source of energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic material.'
Dr Olivier Rouxel, of the French IFREMER institute, added: 'So far, evidence for life deep within oceanic crust was based on chemical and textural signatures in rocks, but direct proof was lacking.'
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