Dear Future: Where we might find life on MarsOur first episode focuses on Gaetan Borgonie, a Belgian scientist who discovered the "mephistopheles worm," an extremophile that lives in Earth's deepest mine.
[MUSIC] Beatrix Gold Mine Free State, South Africa. We are now at minus 1.4 kilometers in Beatrice Gold Mine. This is the closest to actually we can compare we thought might be happening on Mars. [SOUND] We try to find out how do organisms survive down here. That will give us an answer and some clues where to look for in other planets. I follow the worm to some extent. Wherever the worm goes, I will go. [LAUGH] [MUSIC] [MUSIC] [BLANK_AUDIO] I've been to the mines, how many times, I don't know it by heart. I stopped counting at 50 We are focusing on mines because they are the deepest in the world. There's no place on the planet where you can go deeper underneath the surface than in South Africa. [BLANK_AUDIO] I am Gaetan Borgonie. I am a zoologist by training. And I'm study nematodes, also called round worms in the deep sub-surface. [MUSIC] Evolutionary, it is one of the oldest Multicellular organisms still known to man to this date. I had been looking for the worm since 2006 so it took two years to actually find it. You can't see them by the naked eye. And they are everywhere. I would not call the devil worm invisible, but it's a very tough animal. [BLANK_AUDIO] I am fascinated by the planet Mars. Mars is pretty inhospitable as is it today, so on the surface finding life will be highly improbably. If life exists on the planet, it will be deep underneath the surface. And we are finding that there's actually much much more than we ever thought possible. So that gives us great hopes that if you dig on Mars, you might actually still find pockets of life that maybe one day were on the surface, but are now only surviving deep underground. The deepest one we found was at minus 3.6 kilometers, and that is still the deepest found nematodes on the planet. It makes no sense looking in nice places, because we already know a lot abt them. It's just by looking at what the edge of what is still possible, that that will learn us how likely it is to find life somewhere else, under extreme conditions. [MUSIC] What is most remarkable about nematodes is their survival capability. I mean, I once found a worm in a cave in Mexico Which was able to survive at pH 0. Imagine this, we need 21% oxygen as humans to survive indefinitely. A worm can survive indefinitely on half a percentage of oxygen. I mean, if you can survive pH 0 and you can survive [UNKNOWN] underground and you can survive space shuttle Columbia breaking up, and then the experiment with worms falling to the earth and still survive and recover. I've not see another organism do a thing like that. [MUSIC] The first time we found a nematode is actually we came back from Beatrix Mine in South Africa. And I opened a filter and there attached to the filter still by its tail was a single worm wriggling about. [MUSIC] So I was like completely going through the roof. I had finally found what I was looking for. The unfortunate problem was it still was broken and normally that is pretty deadly for a nematode so the next few days was like talking to the worm and intensive care saying please, please reproduce produce an egg so that I get new worms. And it ended up producing 12 more eggs. But that was a day I still vividly remember to this day. In a certain sense, they are my babies. A worm has a digestive system like we have. It has a nervous system like we We have. It eats the bacteria it finds around them. It produces its own sperm and its own eggs in the same animal, so it does self-fertilization. The worm we're looking at was a new specie. The press call it the devil worm. [MUSIC] [MUSIC] So this morning it's 4:40, it's early. That's the part I hate about the [UNKNOWN] getting up early. We're going to the place where we originally found The [UNKNOWN] world. [MUSIC] [BLANK_AUDIO] We are now going about a mile underground, where it Will be approximately 95 degrees Farenheit. [MUSIC] The site/ of the process is very difficult nd a long one. Most of the time you think about something, where you have a working hypothesis. And you end up somewhere else where you did not expect to be. [SOUND] [SOUND] This is the rock face, there is water running between cracks in these rocks. Geologists drilled in the mine this bore hole which they put in [INAUDIBLE] because so much water is coming out of it. So we attached the sampling equipment It runs directly from the bore hole, over this filter that will stop any multicellular organism. The water then runs through here over this little wheel. Now this little wheel is actually intended to slow down the water So that you get the heap up of water here, so that we do not have a reverse contamination. And I'm not so much interested in rediscovering what I already discovered before. I want to find new worms, new animals, new things, not the same. I do not want to repeat what I already did. [BLANK_AUDIO] From the point of view of biology, the importance of the discovery is that nobody believed even remotely possibly that a multicellular organism could survive those extreme conditions so far under the surface of the Earth. Professor of Princeton University compared it to finding Moby **** in the Great Lakes, or finding the Monster of Loch Ness. And then you actually find it which means that your theoretical prediction becomes real. From a point of your scientific curiosity, it doesn't get any better than this. Temperature is 23 degrees, pH is 7.3. This is real worm country. [SOUND] So all around you there is water flowing through these rocks. And some will contain worms. Some will contain bacteria. Some will contain bug. And that is quite amazing actually. But wouldn't it be lovely to be [UNKNOWN] that would be quite nice. When I get up early in the morning to go to the [UNKNOWN] ask myself [UNKNOWN] what the heck am I doing in the morning? But once I'm here, I'm actually quite happy to What has changed in the sciencentific community is there was a time when fundamental science was looked upon by the population and by our leaders as something positive I mean don't forget the last 2,000 years what fundamental science people asking very basic questions but the times have changed to the idea that. You can buy innovation. If you give a lot of money to a small group of people in a room and say, these are society's problems, solve them. It doesn't work that way. Most discoveries are done by accident, so how could I possibly ever explain to anyone what a return on my investment will be. When I started this reasearch, there were a lot of people who had serious doubts as to the validity of the assumption. And whether it should be done. But in the end, I think if you are really convinced about your idea, and you think you have the data you should just go for it. I mean, it would not be the first time that someone opposes an idea who turns out to be right. [MUSIC] My work does not help to answer the questions are we alone, are we not alone, is there life on Mars, or not? It might just indicate that life always finds a way and therefore if you have a planetary body of where you think nah, it's not gonna work here. This won't have happened. You should be very careful before you say no, because you do not know what you're going to find. I never expected to find a sewer with so many invertebrates, but I did. [BLANK_AUDIO] One of the precautions I have is the question whether these specimens actually resurface in the hot spring on the surface? If all life on the surface is destroyed, nothing is left on the surface, let's call that mass sterilization. If those animals resurface again there may be spots on Mars where water in some form or another actually reappears again. Life could kick-start again. I know it seems far fetched but it should be considered. There are questions I would like to see answered before I pass away. Is there life on Mars? Because that is a question that has consumed me to some extent almost all my professional life and I think the answer is yes. If they give me an opportunity and say look we give you a reasonable chance to arrive alive on Mars I'm gone. Even if there is no return ticket. This is the best thing you can possibly imagine as a biologist. [MUSIC] I would like to witness the moment of first contact. [MUSIC] That is also something, this is gonna be huge. [MUSIC] [BLANK_AUDIO]