No matter how deep we dig, life has always found a way to survive. The remarkable story of these impossible microbes can teach us about how life evolved

Earth 8 May 2019
Earth's crust artwork

Peter Greenwood

THE first ten million years were the worst,” said Marvin, “and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million years I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.”

Poor old Marvin the Paranoid Android, left to wait for eternity in a car park at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But if the ordeal of this Douglas Adams character seems trying, consider the real-life fate of microorganisms discovered buried in sediment under the South Pacific in 2010. They had been there for around 100 million years.

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And they were still alive – barely. Their metabolisms had slowed to a crawl and they were using what little energy they had just to stay in the game. But alive they were. “They’re definitely breathing!” says Steven D’Hondt at the University of Rhode Island, who discovered them.

The presence of ancient, zombie microbes entombed deep under Earth’s surface may seem surprising, but D’Hondt and his crew would have been more surprised not to find them. Wherever we drill into the planet, we find life. And while some is zombie-like, most is not. Life underground is rich, dynamic and deeply strange. What it teaches us has important implications for our concept of life itself, not just here on Earth, but on other planets too.

For centuries, nobody thought that Earth’s crust was anything other than inanimate rock. The first hint to the contrary came in 1926, when US geologists extracted water from oil wells nearly 600 …

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