Dubbed “Worms from Hell,” Halicephalobus mephisto was discovered 1.3 kilometers below the Earth’s surface in a South African gold mine.
Halicephalobus mephisto (Worms from Hell); Photo Credit: Gaetan Borgonie, Courtesy Ghent University, Belgium

It’s Alive!

In defense of underground organisms

SUPPOSE THE PLANET’S DEEP geological strata contained life. I don’t mean “life” in a healing crystal, Mother Earth sort of way. I’m talking about life in the blood-and-guts Darwinian sense: procreating, calorie-seeking, membrane-swaddled, metabolically active existence.

Suppose we found out that the radioactive, magma-warmed rocks miles below our feet housed complex communities of organisms? What if we knew that the planet’s mineral underworld—symbol of everything dead, devoid, inert, and unresponsive—was actually an ecosystem—a kind of underground coral reef—and, as such, was part of the biosphere? How would such a discovery change our worldview? And how might it change how we behaved up here on the sunlit crust?

In fact, this is the discovery—although it is not a new one, and other than spawning the obscure field of geomicrobiology, it has yet to penetrate the larger culture. A Russian paper published in 1940, quaintly titled “On the Microorganisms of the Lower Limits of the Biosphere,” broke the story: the curious “pink water” that gushed up from deep oil wells in Azerbaijan contained a previously undescribed bacterium that, when cultured in the laboratory in the absence of air, turned a brilliant purple. These organisms appeared to be true “relics” from the deep and not contaminants introduced by the drill heads. If so, conceded the author, the biosphere must be said to extend a mile or more into the dark heart of the planet.

A decade later, more startling news: fungal filaments and bacteria not only were ubiquitously present in deep rock layers like dolomite and gneiss, they seemed to be playing an active role in making them. In other words, the biological is the creator of the geological. (Or in the bland language of science, “Microbial life plays an important role in the formation . . . of rocks which are generally considered to have formed abiotically.”)

The discovery of so-called deep life—and the subsequent recognition that ultra-subterranean organisms are, like everybody else, actively altering their habitats to suit themselves—was mostly greeted with blank stares both within and without the world of science. But the paradigm-shifting findings keep piling up: Underworld microbiota can join together to form highly organized colonies. In place of electron transport systems, they grow electrically conductive nanowires and transfer electrons into the minerals around them. Many use hydrogen as an energy source. At least one runs on the energy released through radioactive decay. Some have arsenic instead of phosphorus in their DNA.

What if we knew that the planet’s mineral underworld was actually an ecosystem?

And this: by weight, more than half of all life on Earth likely lies within deep geological strata.

And this: as a major player in element cycling, deep life may be contributing to climate stability.

Finally, last summer, came the headline-grabbing find from a South African gold mine: roundworms—multicellular, wiggly, visible-to-the-naked-eye worms—were pulled from a pool of scalding water more than three kilometers under the Earth’s crust. And suddenly, everyone was talking about . . .


Yes, Mars. As in this headline from the Washington Post: “‘Worms from Hell’ Un-earth Possibilities for Extraterrestrial Life.”

Mars is not where this news sent me. Instead, it propelled me into my own backyard to lie on the grass and think once again about the Marcellus Shale, the bedrock below me, that old methane-pocked seafloor sprawled below upstate New York, which now lies firmly in the crosshairs of the world’s biggest energy companies. Their plan, which creeps ever closer, is to blanket the above ground landscape with drill rigs, condensers, and pipelines and blast the subterranean landscape with explosives, chemicals, and immense amounts of water until the shale layer a mile below fractures and gives up its gas. That’s called fracking.


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FRACKING WAS, IN FACT, MY first introduction to deep life. While poking around on gas industry websites late one night, I found a pastel-colored pie chart that showed the relative proportion of each category of chemicals that made up fracking fluid. Pale blue, labeled water, filled nearly the whole circle. Friction reducers, gelling agents, and acids were all slim triangles. And then there was the wedge labeled biocides. It was a vanishingly thin slice—.001 percent of total volume. But, with 5 to 9 million gallons of fluid required for a single frack job, that must mean that fifty to ninety gallons—a couple of bathtubs full—of pure poison are poured down every wellhead and forced into the fractured shale. Why?

Because bedrock is alive with microflora. And because the fresh water forced down the hole is often drawn from lakes and streams, which also bloom with life.

Well, that’s not how the website put it. The problem for which biocides are the solution is called bio-fouling. A mile below the Earth’s surface, where temperatures are warm, microbes can feed on the fracking gels, sheathe the pipes, and interfere with the flow of gas. The word slime appeared a couple times in the reference to biocides. That caught my attention. Any organism referred to as slime by the oil and gas industry was interesting to me.

So I went to Wyoming. More specifically, I went to the geyser basins within Yellowstone National Park where one can see up close the kind of organisms that first intrigued Dr. V. Issatchenko in the oil fields of Azerbaijan. Yellowstone contains one of the planet’s thirty confirmed “hot spots,” where magma lies just a few thousand yards below the sizzling surface and where steaming vents, bubbling mud pots, and boiling acid pools re-create conditions more typically found many miles closer to the center of the Earth. And so you can wander for miles along the boardwalks like Orpheus in the underworld—or a character out of Jules Verne—gazing out at a sulfurous landscape of fire and brimstone.

And it’s all alive. Bacteria. Fungi. The whole vast domain of microbial life called Archaea. Blue. Green. Yellow. Orange. Floating as sheets. Fluttering in streamers. Molded into wild architectural forms. Functionally speaking, these forms of life are collectively known as extremophiles. In 1993, biochemist Kary Mullis received the Nobel Prize for isolating an enzyme from a bacterium collected from the steamy Yellowstone cauldron called Mushroom Pool. It was a heat-stable enzyme—once presumed to be an impossibility; its discovery paved the way for the polymerase chain reaction, which is the nifty technique that generates multiple copies of DNA for purposes of both medical research and forensic evaluation.

For these reasons and more, Yellowstone’s geyser basins are an international heritage site. Outside the park’s boundaries, gas companies are fracking the hell out of Wyoming’s bedrock.


I TURN NOW TO ASK A favor of my fellow writers who work in the oil and gas industry.

Before you head off to draft a statement accusing environmentalists of caring more about the rights of underworld slime than job creation and energy independence—referencing this essay as exhibit A—I’d like answers to three questions.

As a cancer patient, my fate sometimes hangs on the results of lab tests that employ polymerase chain reactions, as, for example, whenever abnormal cells are found in my urine and their chromosomes need to be examined for possible mutations. So, my attitude toward deep life trends toward gratitude and respect. That extends to any form of life sequestering arsenic in its DNA or that is capable of mobilizing radioactive isotopes.

What is your attitude?

Second, what can you tell us about how deep life shapes global element cycles and therefore our climate?

Lastly, can you provide an example of an ecosystem on which was laid down a barrage of poisons, and terrible and unexpected consequences for human beings were not the result?


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Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.