July 30th, 2010
04:30 PM ET

Deepest cracks of Earth give clues to life in space

The team recovers the hybrid vehicle Nereus aboard the R/V Cape Hatteras during an expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise in October 2009.

Scientists have discovered the deepest crack on the Earth’s crust on the Caribbean Sea floor, along with signs of life that at that those crushing depths could mean alien life could exist on other planets, NASA said. 

A NASA-funded team discovered three hydrothermal vents - fissures in a planet's surface from which geothermally heated water comes – including one about 16,000 feet under the sea along a 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch called the Mid-Cayman Rise. That stretch of sea bed is an ultra-slow spreading ridge that is part of the tectonic boundary between the North American and Caribbean plates. 

Though these hydrothermal vents are far from sunlight and under the extreme pressures of the oceans, some of them get as hot as a convection oven, and scientists say they host bizarre communities that could lead to clues about how life may exist on other planets. 

“Most life on Earth is sustained by food chains that begin with sunlight as their energy source. That’s not an option for possible life deep in the ocean of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, prioritized by NASA for future exploration,” said Max Coleman, co-author of the study with NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. 

“However, organisms around the deep vents get energy from the chemicals in hydrothermal fluid, a scenario we think is similar to the seafloor of Europa, and this work will help us understand what we might find when we search for life there.” 

The team’s findings were published in last week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Chief scientist Chris German and his team look at the data downloaded from the vehicle.

Chris German, the team’s chief scientist and a geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said the team is trying to translate its findings to help plan for future space missions. There may be applications in the search for life on Mars and moons that have an icy ocean, he said. 

Despite uncertainty surrounding NASA’s space program, which has only two Space Shuttle missions left and a dwindling budget, discoveries such as German’s may help show the need for future space exploration. 

The newly discovered vent, named Piccard, is 2,600 feet deeper than the previously known deepest vent found in the Pacific Ocean in 1977. 

Another newly discovered vent, Walsh, was found in rocks that are composed of material similar to the much hotter lavas that erupted on Earth’s very earliest seafloor thousands of years ago. 

The third site, Europa, named after the icy Jupiter moon that scientists believe may contain life, is believed to be a unique shallow low-temperature vent that has only been reported once, at the “Lost City” site in the mid-Atlantic. 

The team scoured for the vents using sensors on unmanned robotic vehicles programmed to track chemicals and microbes discharged from the vents. 

Researchers said the mission marked the first time they were able to obtain microbial data from primitive organisms that thrive in high-temperatures and the lack of oxygen at this depth. German believes what his team has obtained so far is a fraction of the community of organisms that live on the chemical energy at the vents. 

The team plans on returning to the vents to better examine the life there. German also said the team hopes to take the mission to the Arctic, where conditions are much more similar to those on other planets.

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Filed under: Nature • Space • Technology
soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. LaySpacer

    Good explanation of very complicated geology. Would like to share by email. Yet, CNN seems to think email is passee?? Or, are they being paid by IT industry to encourage our use of newer ways of sharing??

    July 30, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • kingtrick

      Apperantly CNN was brought out by facebook, cause they shove it down your throat.

      Good article though.

      July 30, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • john

      Just copy the link and paste it into your email....that's probably one of the simplest things you learn when using a computer. How to copy and paste information from one place to another

      July 30, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • James X.

      Or if you are using any modern web browser you can just directly send it by E-mail.

      In IE8 it would be the "Page" button to the right of the address bar. There is an option says "Send Page by E-mail".

      July 30, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • kerry

      In Safari, you just go to the file menu and select "Email contents of page". Open apple-I. Boom. Done.

      July 30, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rassayana Atrindh

      You can't copy/paste the URL in an email? Now who's the lazy one.

      July 30, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. SAB

    Sure thats it...you know them well Lay

    July 30, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Michael Superczynski

    @LaySpacer – just drag the address of the article from your browser to your email program.

    July 30, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jason

    It's naive to think that WE are the only life in the universe. Get a clue people, we are NOT alone. Humans did not sprout from 2 fake biblical people. We are aliens in the universe and alien to this planet, we call ourselves human, because thats what those who believe in the bible must call us..The earth is VERY young compared to the entire universe. I suggest that you watch the series on the History Channel called Ancient Aliens. It might open your minds to a new way of thinking! history com/shows/ancient-aliens

    July 30, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • john

      whatever your smoking...i'd like a hit please....

      July 30, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • TomKas

      John, go back to school.

      July 30, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • nubaa

      john is an idiot! 🙂

      July 30, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Parris

      ancient aliens : cool
      you know our technology alone makes me believe we were some race stranded here without any of our stuff and we had to start from scratch by recreating ourselves 😉

      July 30, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • kyle

      We aren't alien to this planet. :/

      July 30, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      There is intelligent life on earth!
      But I'm leaving tonight...

      July 30, 2010 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      I guess thats because your so smart there cant be someone smarter than you huh, Your Father in Heaven the only God might point out that the contentious parts of any story are not the important part of the lesson it teaches, Get back to God or perish

      September 3, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. LA Guy

    It's called cut and paste.

    July 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  6. David

    I wonder if the seeds of life exist in such an environment or if life would have to develop in less extreme environments and then adapt to survive in places like this. And lets speed up going to Europa.

    July 30, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. dwight huth

    The question is would we be able to transplant life that we find at these depths to the same depths on other planets thus possibly increasing the likely hood of said life taking hold and conditioning the palnet for us to live on?

    @David – David, Microbial lifeforms have been found upto a half mile under the Gulf of Mexico's bed, I wonder why Big Oil would want to cover this type of find up, that does not use oxygen as it's fuel source but uses methane instead. A good article to read is "When will the Bubble Burst? Discover March 2004 Vol.25 No3. The article discusses the microbial called Archeae. The article is a very good read. The main issue that should be looked at is since life does not need oxygen to necessisarily live on then life would hvae (Had a Sallin Palin moment there) have been able to evolve on other planets and just not Earth.

    July 30, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Thanks~

      July 30, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Parris

      This sounds interesting. Will try to locate.

      July 30, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • btechno

      What Dwight is explaining sounds like terraforming – changing the environment to fit the needs of humans – but, I think what David is asking is if life could arise under extreme conditions (pressure, temperature, etc) such as in deep ocean vents. Being a biologist and having studied several extremophile species of bacteria, I would argue that what we perceive as "extreme" is merely an anthropocentric view of an environment that is not suitable for human life. Life is incredibly durable and is in no way limited to the narrow spectrum of conditions that humans can endure. As we have seen on Earth, as long as there is an energy supply and conditions allow for chemistry to occur, there is a good chance that something is living there. So I would say that conditions like these would not be a limitation.

      July 30, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. asterger

    CNN – jet propulsion laboratory is a proper noun as in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    July 30, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. PARROT

    ARE WE GOING TO DIE?

    July 30, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. huh?

    So they are exploring Oprah's butt? Pretty big crack there.

    July 30, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • kerry

      There's more life flourishing in the toxic netherregions of Lohan's cracks than there are in Oprah's, despite the size differences.

      July 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Khaos

    I wonder what kind of new, tasty critters they will find in those vents. Pass the butter and let's eat 'em..

    July 30, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. FauxNews

    I wonder if distance alien forms of life know how to cut and paste?

    July 30, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ron

    "Another newly discovered vent, Walsh, was found in rocks that are composed of material similar to the much hotter lavas that erupted on Earth’s very earliest seafloor thousands of years ago."

    Erm, thousands of years ago? Who writes this stuff, young Earth creationists?

    July 30, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. dan

    This is what we spend out tax dollars on? We are 12 trillion in debt and they think hey lets spend millions studying holes in the ocean floor.............

    July 30, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • agenice

      This was a German experiment... not a US experiment.

      July 30, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • agenice

      DOH!
      Might help if i read that the dude's name is German.. not that it is a German experiment..
      Will now go out back and give self 40 lashings and beg for forgiveness.

      July 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Archimeaty

    Exploration needn't cease due to dubget concerns. We need to keep exploring, that our discoveries continue to inspire mankind to reach for greater knowledge. To stop doing so would make existence rather dull.

    I'd rather blow a few bucks on the exploration of *anything* than to cast that aside and be mired fully in an all-consuming worry over dollars and cents with nothing else of interest to periodically catch my attention.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • almxx

      We need a scientific investigation into why the billionaires that run the world need more money. Obviously they have only psychological need. The earth is being run at the expense of the many, by the many, for the few who are insane. This means the many are more insane than the few that run them. Which shows me that earth is a space prison planet.

      August 1, 2010 at 2:42 am | Report abuse |
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