Saturday, December 23, 2006

Hedwig and the Angry Picometer: The Times reported today that Nature had published a study that found very, very, very small microbes, smaller than anyone ever found before, living in highly acidic drainage water in a mine in northern California. There's hope for extraterrestrial life yet, it seems:

The microbes, members of an ancient family of organisms known as archaea, formed a pink scum on green pools of hot mine water laden with toxic metals, including arsenic.

"It was amazing,” said Jillian F. Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the discovery team. "These were totally new." In their paper, the scientists call the microbes "smaller than any other known cellular life form."

Scientists say the discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending down miles whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life.

It may also influence the search for microscopic life forms elsewhere in the solar system, a discovery that would prove that life in the universe is not unique to Earth but an inherent property of matter.

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