Researchers have mapped the genome of a microbe that thrives in oxygen-deprived areas of the ocean known as "dead zones." These creatures are increasing, and their ability to live without oxygen might make them perfect space-dwellers.
The article, published today in Science, looks at a microbe known as SUPO5, which lives in areas of the ocean which have low amounts of oxygen. These "dead zones" are created by climate change and nitrogen runoff. The microbes were found off the coast of British Columbia, in the Saanich Inlet, and use nitrates instead of oxygen as a source of energy. They remove sulfides from the water, fix carbon dioxide, and in turn produce nitrous oxide, a very potent greenhouse gas.
The dead zones, officially called oxygen minimum zones (OMZs), are expanding, and most marine life struggles to live in their low oxygen environments. You can find dead zones off the coasts of British Columbia, Oregon, Chile, and Namibia, among other locations. Their growth may have significant impact on fisheries and marine life, and the presence of SUPO5 seems to be one of the best indicators of the presence of dead zones - they are helping turn the zones into nitrogen sinks that pump out greenhouse gasses.
By creating dead zones, we my have inadvertently helped space-faring microbes evolve. SUPO5 can survive low oxygen environments, with otherwise deadly chemical makeups. The organism refines sulfur compounds, which on earth are only found in very exotic environments, such as hydrothermal vents, or these OMZs. On another planet, they could thrive.
Said Steve Hallam, the head researcher on the project:
I hesitate to use the word alien to describe [SMO5], as it's very much part of earth's system, but it's alien to us...it doesn't require the thin film of oxygenated atmosphere that we thrive in.
Possibly these microbes could be used in terraforming. They can survive starvation, too. When food supplies get low, the microbe goes dormant. That would make it ideal for putting into hibernation for a long trip.
Hallan says SMO5 also could be useful here on Earth in wastewater treatment or fuel production, where the microbes' unique biology could be used to remove sulfides.
Image courtesy of Hallam Lab.