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Hints of Alien Life: Scientists Look to Washington and Oregon Coast

Published 04/10/2019 at 5:33 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Hints of Alien Life: Scientists Look to Washington and Oregon Coast

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(Corvallis, Oregon) – Scientists from Oregon State University in Corvallis recently published their findings regarding microbial life off the Washington coast that are not only more primitive than previously known to exist but they also help give glimpses into what life on other worlds may be like.

With their ship docked in Astoria, on the north Oregon coast, researchers dug down 1.6 miles below the surface of the ocean off the Juan de Fuca Ridge, about 120 miles off the coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. There, they discovered a form of microbe so unevolved it resembles the lifeforms of Earth’s earliest existence. It was a remarkable discovery: a community of hydrogen-consuming microbes that were like nothing seen before.

In their paper, the researchers reveal a community of microbial organisms that survives using an ancient metabolic method that is so unlike most other lifeforms currently in existence.

OSU’s Amy Smith was a doctoral student at the time, and she’s now lead author on the paper recently published in the ISME Journal, a publication of the International Society for Microbial Ecology. In it, she describes an organism with a very different metabolism, one that has not evolved since life first popped up on this planet billions of years ago.

“We went into the study expecting to find one kind of microbe, and we found others - similar, but a more ancient lineage dependent upon hydrogen,” Smith said.

It’s the sort of find that has some in the astronomy world excited as well: these kinds of extremophiles (microbes that thrive in extremely hot environments) are of interest to those looking for life on other planets. Scientists at OSU said these “may be the type of life most likely to exist on any of a billion planets that contain water and volcanic rock.”

The project took a few years. Researchers drilled deep holes into basalt rock – reaching down more than 1100 feet below the ocean floor – then placed PVC plastic chambers inside. Leaving these “traps” for four years, the microbes eventually colonized the minerals inside. They found at least 11 different species of primitive microbes.

These creatures live without oxygen, according to another OSU researcher on the project, Martin Fisk. Instead of living on organic carbon, they eat hydrogen. It’s believed they existed at a time when Earth had no oxygen.

It’s likely even the Oregon coast has these tiny time-trippers lurking offshore.

“We believe these microbes are actually throughout all of oceanic crust, which covers over 60 percent of the Earth’s surface,” Smith said. “They especially love it hot, so crust that is covered in sediment helps keep their habitat the perfect temperature. The sediment that covers the area we studied came from the continents originally either as runoff or as algae and diatoms bloomed near the coast. This area is susceptible to glacial-interglacial cycles and sea level changes due to its proximity to land. I would say it could be considered a near-shore spreading ridge that is affected by continental processes.”

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