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Busy microbial world discovered in deepest ocean crust ever explored
Date:11/19/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. The first study to ever explore biological activity in the deepest layer of ocean crust has found bacteria with a remarkable range of capabilities, including eating hydrocarbons and natural gas, and "fixing" or storing carbon.

The research, just published in the journal PLoS One, showed that a significant number and amount of bacterial forms were present, even in temperatures near the boiling point of water.

"This is a new ecosystem that almost no one has ever explored," said Martin Fisk, a professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. "We expected some bacterial forms, but the long list of biological functions that are taking place so deep beneath the Earth is surprising."

Oceanic crust covers about 70 percent of the surface of the Earth and its geology has been explored to some extent, but practically nothing is known about its biology partly because it's difficult and expensive, and partly because most researchers had assumed not all that much was going on.

The temperature of the sediments and rock increases with depth, and scientists now believe that the upper temperature at which life can exist is around 250 degrees. The ocean floor is generally composed of three levels, including a shallow layer of sediment; basalt formed from solidified magma; and an even deeper level of basalt that cooled more slowly and is called the "gabbro" layer, which forms the majority of ocean crust.

The gabbro layer doesn't even begin until the crust is about two miles thick. But at a site in the Atlantic Ocean near an undersea mountain, the Atlantis Massif, core samples were obtained from gabbro rock formations that were closer to the surface than usual because they had been uplifted and exposed by faulting. This allowed the researchers to investigate for the first time the microbiology of these rocks.

A research expedition drilled more than 4,600 feet in
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Contact: Martin Fisk
mfisk@coas.oregonstate.edu
541-737-1458
Oregon State University
Source:Eurekalert  

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