A vast carpet of underwater microbes that covers an area as big as Greece has been discovered on the seabed off the west coast of South America. Scientists believe the microbes could be directly descended from some of the earliest life forms to have evolved on Earth.
The discovery is part of a series of astonishing finds made since 2000 as part of the decade-long Census of Marine Life, an international project by more than 2,000 scientists from 80 countries to explore the largely unknown life which inhabits the oceans.
The “microbial mat” lives in a deep layer of seawater that is deprived of both light and oxygen and seems to have survived by “eating” hydrogen sulphide and “breathing” nitrates. It could represent a present-day community of organisms descended from primitive microbes which first evolved about 3 billion years ago, when there was no oxygen on the planet.
Scientists said they were taken aback by the spectacle when the first images of the microbial mat appeared on the television screens from video cameras on board a submersible robot, which had been lowered into the deep ocean to explore the continental shelf off the coasts of Chile and Peru.
“It was like a big carpet of white grass with filaments sticking out and waving in the water, said Victor Gallardo, a Chilean scientist on the expedition. “It looks like a carpet lying on the seabed, separating the underlying sediment from the overlying water,” he added.
Initial tests showed the microbial mat is composed of a community of micro-organisms adapted to growing under extreme hypoxia, when there is little or no oxygen. It is the same kind of conditions that existed before the evolution of the first photosynthetic algae, which were able to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
“The microbes in the mat play around with very simple stuff, such as hydrogen sulphide and nitrates. They use nitrates in the water as we would use oxygen and they take the sulphide as their food,” Dr Gallardo said.
Scientists estimate that the mat extends over vast areas of the seabed in this region of the ocean, covering a territory roughly the size of Greece. Explorers have found them off the central and northern parts of both Chile and Peru, and they have also been detected in sulphur-rich waters off the Galapagos islands, Ecuador and Panama.
The largest filaments of the mats are about half the width of a human hair and are composed of individual microbial cells organised into long multicellular strands that are white because of a build-up of sulphate salts in the living tissue. The bacteria within the mats are some of the biggest known.
“For most of the time in the history of the world, most of the ocean was anoxic so these species probably dominated the planet for hundreds of millions of years,” said Professor Ron O’Dor, chief scientist on the Census of Marine Life and a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
“The DNA in these micro-organisms has probably been alive for longer than anything else on the planet,” he added. …