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Buried microbes coax energy from rock

In experiments, microorganisms stimulate minerals to produce hydrogen, a key fuel for growth

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4:31pm, February 8, 2011

Here’s yet another reason to marvel at microbes: Buried deep within Earth at temperatures and pressures that would kill most living beings, bacteria and other tiny organisms not only survive but apparently even coax the rocks around them to produce food.

Researchers have found that the mere presence of microbes triggers minerals to release hydrogen gas, which the organisms then munch. “It looks like the bacteria themselves have an integral role in liberating this energy,” says R. John Parkes, a geomicrobiologist at Cardiff University in Wales.

His team’s findings appear in the March issue of Geology.

The work helps explain how microbes can survive up to kilometers deep in a subterranean world far from any sunlight to fuel photosynthesis. Such “deep biospheres” may even exist on other planets, Parkes says, with organisms tucked safely away from frigid temperatures and lethal radiation at the surface.

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