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Scientists define new limits of microbial life in undersea volcanoes

By some estimates, a third of Earth's organisms live in our planet's rocks and sediments, yet their lives are almost a complete mystery.

This week, the work of microbiologist James Holden of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and colleagues shines a light into this dark world.

In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they report the first detailed data on methane-exhaling microbes that live deep in the cracks of hot undersea volcanoes.

"Evidence has built that there's an incredible amount of biomass in the Earth's subsurface, in the crust and marine sediments, perhaps as much as all the plants and animals on the surface," says Holden.

"We're interested in the microbes in the deep rock, and the best place to study them is at hydrothermal vents at undersea volcanoes. Warm water there brings the nutrient and energy sources these microbes need."

Just as biologists studied the habitats and life requirements of giraffes and penguins when they were new to science, Holden says, "for the first time we're studying these subsurface microorganisms, defining their habitat requirements and determining how they differ among species."

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