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News Release 18-110

Deep biosphere beneath the seafloor explored at American Geophysical Union fall meeting

Scientists present recent findings on ‘dark energy’ in the subsurface biosphere

Scientists have found that rocks beneath the seafloor are teeming with microbial life.

Scientists have found that rocks beneath the seafloor are teeming with microbial life.


December 3, 2018

In his 1864 science fiction novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne wrote: "Who in his wildest dreams could have imagined that, beneath the crust of our Earth, there could exist a real ocean ... a sea that has given shelter to species unknown?"

Fast-forward more than 150 years to the upcoming American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting, where scientists affiliated with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) will discuss recent progress in understanding what Verne only envisioned: life beneath the seafloor. The meeting will be held in Washington, D.C., from Dec. 10 to 14. Researchers affiliated with C-DEBI, one of 12 NSF Science and Technology Centers, are supported by NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences.

The scientists are working to understand the nature of subseafloor microbial communities and whether these communities are unique. They're also researching where microbes in ocean crust come from and whether these microbes can provide clues about where to look for life on other planets.

Once considered a barren plain, the seafloor and the crust beneath it are humming with microbial life or, as researchers refer to it, "dark energy." Subseafloor bacteria not only exist, they're more abundant and diverse than previously thought. The bacteria "feed" on the planet's ocean crust, posing questions about ocean chemistry and the co-evolution of Earth and life.

While scientists have estimated that microbes living in deep ocean sediments may represent as much as one-third of Earth's total biomass, the habitable part of the ocean crust may be 10 times as great.

Though dark environments once appeared to offer little energy for sustaining life, the abundance of microbes discovered in the subseafloor is causing scientists to wonder how long life may have thrived there - and what percent of Earth's biosphere it ultimately makes up.

C-DEBI-related sessions at AGU include:

Monday, Dec. 10

8:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m.

V11B: Crustal Formation, Fluid-Rock Reactions, and Subsurface Microbial Communities in the Samail Ophiolite: Results from the Oman Drilling Project and Related Research II
Marriott Marquis - Marquis 6

ED11A: Aiming for Truly Diverse Diversity to Strengthen the Geoscience Community I
Marriott Marquis - Marquis 7-8

8:00 a.m. - 12:20 p.m.

V11E: Earth's Organic Carbon Cycle: From Oceans to Mantle Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

10:20 a.m. - 12:20 p.m.

V12B: Crustal Formation, Fluid-Rock Reactions, and Subsurface Microbial Communities in the Samail Ophiolite: Results from the Oman Drilling Project and Related Research
Marriott Marquis - Marquis 6

ED12A: Aiming for Truly Diverse Diversity to Strengthen the Geoscience Community II
Marriott Marquis - Marquis 7-8

1:40 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

ED13C: Aiming for Truly Diverse Diversity to Strengthen the Geoscience Community III Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

V13E: Crustal Formation, Fluid-Rock Reactions and Subsurface Microbial Communities in the Samail ophiolite: Results from the Oman Drilling Project and Related Research I Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

V14A: Oceanic Intraplate Volcanism II
Marriott Marquis - Liberty I-K

Tuesday, Dec. 11

1:40 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

B23E: Integrated Habitability Science: Forecasting the Trajectory of Life and Planetary Habitability on Earth and Beyond Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

B23F: Picky Eating in the Deep Subsurface? Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

Wednesday, Dec. 12

1:40 p.m. - 3:40 p.m.

P33A: Enceladus: A World Awaiting I
Convention Center 207A

V33A: Hydrothermal Systems in Oceanic Arcs: Subseafloor Structure, Mineralization Processes, and Vent Communities I
Marriott Marquis - Liberty L

1:40 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

P33G: Analogue Studies of Gradient Systems Relevant to Astrobiology on Ocean Worlds and Mars I Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

V34A: Hydrothermal Systems in Oceanic Arcs: Subseafloor Structure, Mineralization Processes, and Vent Communities II
Marriott Marquis - Liberty L

Thursday, Dec. 13

8:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m.

B41B: Centennial: Biogeosciences--Defining the Pulse of a Living Planet
Convention Center 143A-C

10:20 a.m. - 12:20 p.m.

B42B: Centennial: Transformational Contributions over the Past 100 Years in the Biogeosciences I
Convention Center 143A-C

P42B: From the Earth to the Moons: Unraveling the Geologic, Oceanographic, and Chemical Mysteries of Ice and Ocean Worlds III
Convention Center 207A

1:40 p.m. - 3:40 p.m.

P23B: "The New Mars Underground": Science and Exploration of a New Deep Frontier II
Convention Center 206

1:40 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

B43H: Microbiome and Microbial Biogeochemistry in Terrestrial Saline/Hypersaline Environments Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

P43F: Enceladus: A World Awaiting II Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

V43F: Hydrothermal Systems in Oceanic Arcs: Subseafloor Structure, Mineralization Processes, and Vent Communities III Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

V43G: New Insights into Oceanic Spreading Centers from Seafloor Observatories Posters
Convention Center Hall A-C (Poster Hall)

Friday, Dec. 14

10:20 a.m. - 12:20 p.m.

V52B: New Insights into Oceanic Spreading Centers from Seafloor Observatories I
Marriott Marquis - Capitol/Congress

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email: cdybas@nsf.gov

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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