X-treme Microbes — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Movie — Life Deep in the Earth
From “The Sacred Balance”
Use by permission from Kensington Communications, Inc.
Run time: 6:00
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FACTORY, WORKERS GO DOWN TO THE MINE/VARIOUS
East Dreifontein is one of the deepest mines in the world. Ten thousand miners descend to the depths every day.
I joined Tullis and his research team at Shaft No. 5, which is three kilometres deep. I was scared at the thought of being confined in a tiny space.
DAVID AND TULLIS WITH ALL THE GEAR ON, GET INTO THE ELEVATOR TO TAKE IT DOWN TO THE MINE
When the cage goes down full at shift time, they’re absolutely jammed in, like sardines and it’s two miles down.
BOTTOM OF ELEVATOR MOVING DOWN INTO DARKNESS.
DAVID AND TULLIS SQUISHED IN THE ELEVATOR.
I was terrified really because I didn’t know about myself. I didn’t know myself well enough.
TULLIS AND DAVID SPEAK
David: I can certainly feel the heat coming up now. What will it be at the bottom of the shaft?
Tullis: They try and keep it at 32, let’s put it that way.
David: And what is the rock’s temperature at?
Tullis: Ah, that’s a different story—it’s about 50 degrees-centigrade
It’s three kilometres down, and it’s a journey back in time. Tullis hopes to find bacteria like the ones that first appeared on Earth, billions of years ago.
DAVID GETS ON THE MINE LIFT, AND RIDES THOUGH A TUNNEL.
I get to the bottom and I’m astounded at the size of the caverns down there. It’s a very impressive place in terms of the scale and the sheer technology. You realize the noise coming in is the noise of the fans that have to exchange a huge amount of air to keep everyone down there alive.
THEY ENTER THE BOWELS OF THE MINE
We’re here because the drilling team at the rockface has run into water.
DRILLING INTO THE ROCK
Tullis: In the search for life we always are looking for liquid water. Water does appear to be the key.
Tullis: They penetrate with a drill bit, we move in as quickly as we can and obtain samples that are free of drilling contamination.
DRILLS AND FISSURES, MEN WORKING
TULLIS AND DAVID WALKING THROUGH THE MINE
Tullis: We were called by the mining company when they drilled and hit this intersection
David: Oh, boy, it looks hot. It feels hot.
Tullis: Temperatures are 100 degree C and it may in fact be populated by hyperthermophiles that are able to maintain their integrity, they’re tenacious enough to do that with growth rates that are phenomenally slower than anything that’s encountered in deep sea environments.
TULLIS AND PARTNER TAKE A TEST SAMPLE OF WATER.
THEY TAKE A MEASUREMENT.
Some of these organisms, Tullis told me, grow so slowly they may only reproduce once in a thousand years.
David: What’s this going to tell me?
Assistant: It’s going to give you a PH
Tullis: There’s 913.
David: Oh, wow, so it’s alkaline.
Tullis: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Most of these waters down here are alkaline. So the water here is not quite as saline as sea water.
David: So what’s Duane doing here, Tullis?
DUANE POURS WATER IN CANISTER
TULLIS SPEAKS, WHILE BOTTLING THE WATER
THEY START HEADING BACK WITH THE CANISTER
Tullis: Duane is filtering this fissure water in a sterile anaerobic canister. And when we return to the surface we will filter those water samples so that any bacteria that contain DNA and lipids get preserved on the filter. We then freeze that down and that information will tell us the phylogenetic relationships of these organisms to their sisters or cousins that exist on the surface of the planet.
Tullis told me almost nothing is known about these mysterious microbes from the deep.
TULLIS ON CAMERA
Tullis: When you have microbial communities at such enormous depths, are they essentially autonomous down there? They’re indigenous to that strata, and they can exist for millions and millions of years. The ice ages come, the ice ages go, the meteorites impact and kill dinosaurs, you know. The mammals take over, but these guys never see any of that action at all. They’re just happily doing their business down there very very slowly, hardly evolving at all.
PREPARING THE SAMPLE AT THE FIELD LAB.
Microbiologist Duane Moser prepares the samples in the field lab for shipping back to the States. He may be handling organisms that are many thousands of years old, close kin to some of Earth’s earliest inhabitants.
ONSTOTT ON CAMERA
Onstott: Some of these organisms resemble the type of organisms that had been found on the surface of the planet. Some of these organisms actually resemble deep-sea hydrothermal vent organisms.
David V/O And most of them are totally new to science. It’s a whole new world—but Tullis explained it comes from the distant past.
Tullis: There are a larger number of DNA signatures that we find that don’t closely correlate with anything that’s ever been found on the surface. So here we’re standing essentially with new branches to the tree of life, some of them that are quite distinct from anything that’s ever been discovered before.