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What lies beneath? Life deep underground offers nuclear safety

Society For General Microbiology : 13 September, 2005  (New Product)
Microbes may assist the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel deep underground for a hundred thousand years, according to Swedish scientists speaking today at the Society for General Microbiology's 157th Meeting at Keele University, UK
'There are two biospheres, two whole ecosystems of life, playing on our planet,' says Professor Karsten Pedersen from the University of Göteborg in Sweden. 'One is on the surface and just under the soil, driven by energy from the sun. The second biosphere is out of sight, deep below our feet. At this depth life is driven by energy from the interior of the Earth and it does not need solar energy. And we have only known it exists for 20 years.'

This hidden world was discovered in the mid 1980s when scientists started to drill deep holes, up to a thousand metres deep, in both igneous (e.g. granite) and sedimentary (e.g. lime and sandstone) bedrocks and up came microbes in their millions, in numbers and different types equivalent to many surface ecosystems. The world of intraterrestrial microbes had been discovered. New species such as Methanobacterium subterraneum, Desulfovibrio aespoeensis and Methylomonas scandinavica were found and described.

Life on Earth, terrestrial life, was only thought to exist on the surface, in the top few metres of soil and subsoil, and in the shallower depths of the oceans, since everyone thought all life was driven by photosynthesis and the need to trap energy from the sun. The only other place scientists expected to find life was in extraterrestrial life - the search for ET and life on other planets, driven by similar suns to our own.

The discovery of a whole new ecosystem buried within our planet, intraterrestrial life, has changed everything scientists knew, and opened up totally new perspectives for theories about the origin of life and where to search for life in universe.

Professor Pedersen suggests, 'An origin of life in water filled fractures underground is much more likely than an origin in the old-fashioned 'organic soup'. Modern versions of biological processes possibly common to the first life on earth are still running deep underground.'

'We have only had a short time to start understanding this intraterrestrial world, and exploring some of the possibilities it offers. But we have already discovered microbes which get their energy from feeding off hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and many others which feed on the by-products from the hydrogen-eating microbes. This has changed our view about how underground rock environments help to isolate high level radioactive waste deep underground from the surface biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years,' says Professor Pedersen.
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