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Scientists discover underworld ecosystem teeming with life

Locked within the Earth are organisms that can withstand extreme pressures, temperatures and a lack of nutrients -- changing how we think about "life."

Greg Wanger/California Institute of Technology/Gordon Southam/The University of Queensland

The deep biosphere: an underground ecosystem of bacteria and multi-celled organisms vastly outweighing all of human life on the surface.

Sounds like science fiction, but it's just science

By drilling 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) into the seafloor and plucking microbes from boreholes 5 kilometres (3 miles) deep across hundreds of sites around the world, an international team of researchers has pieced together a model of the subterranean ecosystem hidden beneath the Earth.

At those depths, life has to contend with an array of circumstances we've traditionally thought of as unamenable to living things. Extreme heat, incredibly high pressures and poor access to nutrients typically complicate the ability for life to survive and thrive.

But enhancements to deep ocean drilling techniques and decreasing costs of DNA sequencing have for the first time made it possible to unravel the secrets of the underworld. And I'm pleased to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that life, uh, finds a way.

Revealing their findings before the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting Monday, the team at the Deep Carbon Observatory detailed several "transformational discoveries" that reveal what kinds of life exist in the subterrestrial world -- and how much is hiding down there. By compiling data on microbial diversity and concentration, researchers estimated the deep biosphere has twice the volume of all of Earth's oceans and its mass is hundreds of times greater than that of all humans on the surface.

Led by the Deep Carbon Observatory's "Deep Life" team -- composed of over 300 researchers -- the new research also demonstrates just how far research into subsurface life has come. But with an estimated 70 percent of all bacteria and archaea existing below the surface, there's still much we don't know about how this affects us above ground.

"Deep life probably has an important impact on global biogeochemical cycles, and thus on the surface world. However, we are still far from quantifying this impact," Kai-Uwe Hinrichs, a biogeochemist at Marum University in Germany, said in a statement. 

The Deep Carbon Observatory is a collaborative effort that spans 52 countries and is made up of more than a thousand scientists working across disciplines such as chemistry, physics, microbiology and geology. The 10-year study began in 2009 in an effort to better characterize the role of carbon within the deep Earth. The findings of the international effort will be presented in conjunction with the Fourth International Deep Carbon Observatory Science meeting in October.

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