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No. 91: Jan-Feb 1994

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The earth's biosphere, 'tis no thin veneer

A recurring theme in SF is the three-dimensionality of terrestrial life. Customarily, life is considered confined to a thin spherical shell of air, water, and earth. But the bits of drillers have demonstrated that life prevails as far down as we can pierce the planet's integument. Now, K.G. Stetter et al:

"...report the discovery of high concentrations of hyperthermophiles [viz., bacteria] in the production fluids from four oil reservoirs about 3,000 metres below the bed of the North Sea and below the permafrost surface of the North Slope of Alaska. Enrichment cultures of sulphidogens grew at 85C and 102C, which are similar to in reservoir temperatures."

Stetter et al favor the theory that these hyperthermophiles were injected into the reservoirs through: (1) drilling and secondary-recovery operations; and/ or (2) natural penetration via faults and seeps. They pointedly distance themselves from the idea, championed by T. Gold, that subterranean bacteria are actually permanent ancient residents of a deep subterranean biosphere.

(Stetter, K.O., et al; "Hyperthermophilic Archaea Are Thriving in Deep North Sea and Alaskan Oil Reservoirs," Nature, 365:743, 1993.)

On the other hand, in their comments on the above paper, J. Parkes and J. Maxwell do not shy away from the theory that these denizens of hot, deep oil reservoirs are really indigenous life forms deposited with sediments in distant geological ages, surviving still and even evolving and conquering the infernal regions. They say:

"The results presented do, however, provide firm evidence for the presence of a subterranean biosphere in oil reservoirs; moreover they are consistent with demonstrations of the existence of other deep biospheres in aquifers and marine sediments, which together indicate that the biosphere is not just a thin veneer on the geosphere."

(Parkes, John, and Maxwell, James; "Some Like It Hot," Nature, 365:694, 1993.)

From Science Frontiers #91, JAN-FEB 1994. 1994-2000 William R. Corliss