Lords of the Underworld: Radiation Eating ‘Worms from Hell’ Discovered a Mile Below Earth’s Surface -“A Preview of Life of Mars”


"If life did originate on Mars and if it had sufficient time to go underground deep enough to survive worsening conditions, “then evolution of Martian life might have continued underground. . . . Life on Mars could be more complex than we imagined.”

Gaetan Borgonie of the University of Ghent

Biologists have found complex, multi-celled creatures living a mile and more below the planet’s surface for the first time, raising new possibilities about the spread of life on Earth and potential subsurface life on other planets and moons.

The two lead scientists, Gaetan Borgonie of the University of Ghent in Belgium and Tullis Onstott of Princeton University, said the discovery of creatures so far below ground, with nervous, digestive and reproductive systems, was the equivalent to finding “Moby Dick in Lake Ontario.”

Dubbed  “worms from hell,” the nematodes, or roundworms, were discovered in several gold mines in South Africa, where researchers have also made other breakthrough discoveries about deep subterranean single-cell life.

“This is telling us something brand new,” said Onstott, whose pioneering work in South Africa over the past decade has revolutionized the understanding of extreme microbial life. “For a relatively complex creature like a nematode to penetrate that deep is simply remarkable,” he added.

The subterranean nematodes, one of which was formally named Halicephalobus mephisto after the “Lord of the Underworld,” were described this week in the journal Nature. H. mephisto was found in water flowing from a borehole about one mile below the surface in the Beatrix gold mine.

Borgonie said that although nematodes are known to exist on the deep ocean floor, they have generally not been found more than 10 to 20 feet below the surface of the ground or the ocean bed, but he saw no reason they wouldn’t be found farther down.

In addition to uncovering a new habitat for biology on Earth, Borgonie and Onstott stressed that this could have important implications for astrobiology. Microbes could be living below the cold, dry surface of Mars that's bombarded by harmful radiation but was once much wetter, warmer and better-protected by an atmosphere.

“What we found shows that harsh conditions do not necessarily exclude complexity,” Borgonie said.

The Daily Galaxy via nature.com

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