Some Deep-Sea Microbes Are Hungry For Rocket Fuel Some of the tiniest critters inside the harsh, otherwordly vents at the bottom of sea are unlike almost anything on Earth. They don't need oxygen to thrive — they can use rocket fuel. The discovery is a hint that our planet's first microbes probably sucked up whatever chemicals they could to survive.

Some Deep-Sea Microbes Are Hungry For Rocket Fuel

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Now to a scientific finding about a tiny microbe with a strange diet. Researchers in the Netherlands have found that an organism living deep in the ocean can survive on rocket fuel.

As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the creature's diet might tell us more about the earliest life on the planet.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: There are spots on the ocean floor where volcanic activity causes the water to boil.


BRUMFIEL: These places are called hydrothermal vents. They're hot, the pressure's high, and there's no oxygen dissolved in the water.


BRUMFIEL: I have to say it doesn't sound like the greatest place to go swimming.

RICK COLWELL: It's probably not. But for these organisms it's their spot.

BRUMFIEL: Rick Colwell is a geomicrobiologist at Oregon State University. He studies the microbes that live in the vents.

COLWELL: When you do see them in the microscope, they don't always look very spectacular. Some of them do, but most of them look kind of simple - little round cells that are quite small.

BRUMFIEL: These little round cells may resemble the earliest forms of life on Earth. In the beginning, there was no oxygen. Unlike almost all animals living today, these microbes don't need it. Figuring out what they do need may provide clues about life's beginnings.

Martin Liebensteiner is graduate student in the Netherlands.

MARTIN LIEBENSTEINER: I'm working at the University of Wageningen.

BRUMFIEL: He's studying a particular kind of bug that thrives in the boiling vents, Archaeoglobus fulgidus.

LIEBENSTEINER: It's a kind of bacteria-like cell.

BRUMFIEL: Liebensteiner took some Archaeoglobus, put it in a beaker and fed it. And this is where it gets a little wild.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one, zero and lift-off.


BRUMFIEL: The space shuttle's boosters used fuel containing a chemical called perchlorate. Liebensteiner gave his microbes a perchlorate-only diet. This was something new to them. In the vents they use other chemicals for energy. But as Liebensteiner writes in a paper in Science, the little guys seemed to love their rocket-fueled menu.

LIEBENSTEINER: We found out, it's using it for growth and for survival.

BRUMFIEL: The fact these microbes could use perchlorate on the fly isn't as strange as it first seems, says Rick Colwell.

COLWELL: Yeah, it does seem weird. But the chemical does exist naturally in various places on our planet and also on Mars, for instance. And so, microorganisms who've been around for quite awhile have seen this material and have recognized it as a compound that they could use.

BRUMFIEL: The study suggests that this bug's ancestors sucked up whatever chemicals they could to survive.

COLWELL: They develop a sort of diversity; a bag of tricks that they have, if you will, that allow them to survive under different conditions and this might be one.

BRUMFIEL: In other words, these bacteria may have been using rocket fuel, billions of years before humans did. But don't feel too inferior. We're still the ones that invented the rockets.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News



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