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How Low Can Life Go?

There is a thriving realm of mysterious microbes of potential importance to the global carbon budget hidden beneath the sea floor near where the Earth's crust is being pulled apart, according to new evidence from deep-sea explorers.

In the frigid depths of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, warm water moving through the sea floor near the plate edges has been found loaded with dissolved organic matter with a telltale carbon signature that could have only come from microbes in the rocks.

The warm waters were captured as they poured from an old bore-hole and into the freezing waters, and were double-checked for contamination by comparing them to waters obtained from sterile, specially made samplers that were driven into the sea floor.

"It looks like a massive fire hose," said Matthew McCarthy of the University of California at Santa Cruz, referring to the pressurized, 80-degree Fahrenheit groundwater spewing from the old hole in the sea bottom. McCarthy is one of the authors of a paper about the secrets of that groundwater, being published in the January issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

The goal of the work, McCarthy explained, was to irrefutably show that the waters from the hole were representative of what lies much deeper, rather than just contaminated by the human activities that drilled the hole.

"If there was ever any contamination, it was long gone," McCarthy said of he and his colleagues conclusions.

Indeed, now the researchers have evidence of what is probably a vast volume of lava rocks going down to unknown depths which are loaded with microbes. Those microbes make their living by using reactions on the surface of basalt rocks that have been erupted over the millennia on the seafloor.

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