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Life Below Ground – at 250 Degrees!

By   Shlomo Maital

 A lot of money is being spent looking for life on Mars.

   What about looking for life on Earth – in unexplored places. It’s called “deep life”.

   A fascinating report by AFP, a global news agency, informs us:

   “Scientists have drilled a mile and a half (2.5 kilometers) beneath the seabed and found vast underground forests of “deep life,” including microbes that persist for thousands, maybe millions of years, researchers said Monday.   Feeding on nothing but the energy from rocks, and existing in a slow-motion, even zombie-like state, previously unknown forms of life are abundant beneath the Earth despite extreme temperatures and pressure.   About 70 percent of Earth’s bacteria and archaea — single-celled organisms with no nucleus — live underground, according to the latest findings of an international collaboration involving hundreds of experts, known as the Deep Carbon Observatory, were released at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington.   This “deep life” amounts to between 15 and 23 billion tons of carbon, said the DCO, launched in 2009, as it nears the end of its 10-year mission to reveal Earth’s inner secrets.   The deep biosphere of Earth is massive,” said Rick Colwell, who teaches astrobiology and oceanography at Oregon State University.

   A Japanese scientist who led the study said the following:

   “Most of deep life is very distinct from life on the surface,” said Fumio Inagaki, of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.   Using the Japanese scientific vessel Chikyu, researchers have drilled far beneath the seabed and removed cores that have given scientists a detailed look at deep life.   “The microbes are just sitting there and live for very, very long periods of time,” he told AFP. He described the team’s findings so far as a “very exciting, extreme ecosystem.” Among them may be Earth’s hottest living creature, Geogemma barossii, a single-celled organism found in hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. Its microscopic cells grow and replicate at 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 Celsius). [This is well above the boiling point of water!]  “There is genetic diversity of life below the surface that is at least equal to but perhaps exceeds that which is at the surface and we don’t know much about it,” Colwell said.    

       Brought up from these ancient coal beds and fed glucose in the lab, researchers have seen some microbes, bacteria and fungi slowly waking up. “That was amazing,” said Inagaki.   Scientists have found life in continental mines and boreholes more than three miles (five kilometers) deep, and have not yet identified the boundary where life no longer exists, he added.

           These microbes way underground are important, because they have captured huge amounts of carbon, leaving the oxygen we humans breathe.

           And perhaps they hold the key to removing the carbon spewed into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, causing climate change and global warming.

Diabetes: Breakthrough?

By Shlomo Maital


   Remember how an Australian researcher discovered the cause of ulcers – bacteria! He did it by injecting himself with the specific bacteria and causing an ulcer, at a time when the medical establishment pooh-poohed his hypothesis.

   Now comes news about a breakthrough in diabetes research. Diabetes is a virtual epidemic, as sugar consumption soars (Americans consume 30 kg. per person annually!), Coca Cola pushes sugary drinks and pays scholars to say the problem is lack of exercise….

   Scholars at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, one of the world’s greatest universities, led by Dr. Eran Elyaniv, and publishing their findings in Science,   have linked diabetes to the masses of microbes that inhabit our intestines.  They found that Type 2 diabetes is directly related to the rate at which our intestinal microbes multiply or fail to.

   The research included students of computer science, and used a new technique related to computational biology. The breakthrough shows how modern scientific research requires a portfolio of techniques that link nano, bio, computers, software, electronics, and other fields.

   The research team found that changes in the microbes in our stomach and intestines can be directly related to onset of Type 2 diabetes.

     This could possibly lead to first, much earlier detection of diabetes, bringing effective treatment; or, possibly, second, a medical cure for it (none exists today), based on medication that influences the development of intestinal microbes.

     It has long been known that our wellbeing is influenced strongly by the wellbeing of the massive numbers of microbes that live, multiply and reproduce in our intestines. Now research links this directly with diabetes.   Congratulations to the researchers.      

Are Humans Smarter Than Microbes? It’s a Tie

By Shlomo Maital    


At the moment, human beings, with their huge brains (average weight, 1.5 kgs., or 3.3 pounds, only 2 per cent of our body weight)   seem to be losing the battle against microbes.

   We use antibiotics to battle microbic infections. But the microbes have developed resistance, and many of them are resistant to common antibiotics. We continue to develop new antibiotics, but there are now microbes that cannot be killed by ANY antibiotics now known to man.   This is a natural evolutionary process, and it is exacerbated by the widespread overuse of antibiotics, helped by doctors who overprescribe them and by patients who demand them (even for illnesses like flu that are not affected by antibiotics, because they do not kill viruses). Drug-resistance bacteria infect 2 million people yearly in America, and kill 23,000!

   Writing in The New York Times, Denise Grady reports on a promising new breakthrough that may at least give us human beings a tie in the battle with microbes. A new method extracts antibiotics from bacteria that live in dirt. It was reported in the leading journal Nature last Wednesday. The new drug is called teixobactin. Tested on mice, it easily cured infections.

   Best of all, it is very unlikely that bacteria will develop resistance to this new antibiotic.   The discovery was reported by Kim Lewis, director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Boston’s Northeastern University.

   Basically, here is the new method: The earth teems with microbes, and they would dominate us were it not for antibiotics that microbes secrete to defeat rivals. Scientists “mine” soil samples for antibiotics. But they are limited. 90% of microbial species cannot be cultured in the laboratory. Kim Lewis and his team found a way. Basically, they put bacteria into a soil box, in a lab, with the same kind of soil from which the bacteria originated. As the bacteria multiply, they can be mined for their antibiotics.   The bacteria are ‘tricked’ into thinking that they are on their home ground – not in the lab where scientists are seeking ways to conquer them.  Because the ‘antibiotics’ secreted by bacteria have been around for so long, they seemed to have strong evolutionary survival power, because they enable the bacteria secreting them to survive against competitors. 

       There are some 25 new compounds that show promise as antibiotics, developed in this way.

       Will this help us humans to at least win a tie with the microbes? Don’t underestimate Nature. The power of evolution, especially when it is rapid (because bacteria multiply quickly, live and die in short cycles) is immense.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital