Atomic Extremeophiles Thrive Where the Life-Giving Energy of the Sun Never Reaches

“Life finds a way.”  Thanks to a research time involving Princeton, Indiana University, and others, that isn’t just a sappy Disney quote – it’s an incredible fact.  They found extremophile bacteria buried over two miles into solid rock, where the life-giving energy of the sun never reaches – the energy every other species on Earth depends on.  Instead they found their own power source – radiation!

The hardy organisms have a unique biology with a very refined palate, consuming the by-products of radioactive breakdown to stay alive. Uranium decay cracks water molecules apart, recombining into peroxide (which you might know as bleach).  This combines with fool’s gold (pyrite) to release ions, which the cells’ specialized metabolism can derive energy from.  To summarize: these things sit on uranium, drink bleach and eat solid rock, thereby making every single “Iron Stomach” contest in human history look like a day at the buffet.  Hell, these things make Batman look like a daycare attendant.

Don’t worry though: monster movies may have taught us that atomic-animals immediately grow to fifty times their normal size and begin eating humans, but these bacteria barely grow to regular size. Their nuclear processes aren’t the fountains of energy that our nuclear reactors are, and the subterranean cells grow and divide over a hundred thousand times slower than their surface-borne cousins, dividing only once every three hundred years.  It’s a pure and simple testament to the power of life, the ability to hang on by the very atomic skin of figurative fingernails for no better reason than just “to be”, that they exist at all.  Think about that next time you feel hungry.

The discovery of organisms like this has wider implications beyond sheer awesomeness: in the search for extraterrestrial life, is increases the number of possible locations for lifeforms, as well as reminding us not to assume that they’ll need what we need.  Because if life can exist in perpetually-disinfected nuclear pile, it can exist anywhere.

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