Wherever we dig and however deep we dig, we find microscopic living organisms. Could they eat the carbon we’re pumping into the air?
Mysterious Microbes in Earth's Crust Might Help with the Climate Crisis
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Karen Lloyd: If you look at it one way, we're the two worst people to work together, our disciplines are the two worst. But, I think anytime you find people in two different disciplines that don't normally talk to each other, and then they find a way to talk to each other and they find a way to bridge that gap, then that's where the big discoveries lie.
I'm a microbiologist studying deep sea mud. Nothing excites me more than mud.
Peter Barry: And, I'm an isotope geochemist, I study volcanoes. Usually, we study totally different things, but we've come together for this special research to study microbes.
Lloyd: Microbes. But, not the microbes you're probably thinking of.
Barry: Yeah. Not like the microbes that live inside of a human's gut, but rather microbes that live around volcanoes and thrive off the heat of these volcanic systems.
Crew Member: Mic the microbe interview, take one, A mark, soft sticks.
Mic: So, where should I start?
Director: I don't know. How about the beginning?
Mic: The beginning? I'm going to need another scotch, definitely. Do you have any idea how old I am? You have to go back, way back, before humankind existed.
Lloyd: Microbes are organisms of microscopic size, so they might exist in a single celled form or as a colony of cells.
Barry: They're incredibly diverse.
Lloyd: Yeah, and they can do all sorts of wild sh... Like Anammox cleans up nitrogen pollution from farms and makes a key ingredient in rocket fuel. Pyrodictium can live in boiling water, and Thermus aquaticus helped unlock modern medicine. Anything we do with DNA, we would not be able to do without the enzymes that were pulled out of this organism. There's microbes all throughout earth's crust. It's an entire ecosystem that has a bunch of different things in it, that are as different from each other as giraffes are from a mushroom. But, the thing is, we know shockingly little about microbial life.
Barry: Exactly. Until recently, people didn't even really understand that it was possible for a life to exist down there.
Lloyd: There's no oxygen, there's no sunlight, it's really hot. It doesn't seem like a place you would really find teaming life, but you do.
Barry: Hold on, one second. I got to take this. Hello.
Mic: Hi. This is Dr. Bacteria at the Jones Lab, Vanderbilt. What do you call it when two carbons are in a relationship?
Barry: I'm not exactly ….
Mic: Carbon dating. Get it? You call it carbon dating.
Barry: Oh, my god, Mickey. Unbelievable. Our team has been super busy in the last couple years. We've sampled microbes in volcanic areas all over earth. For example, our buddy, Mic, he's from about a mile below the Mariana Trench.
Mic: People hear that I live under the Earth's crust, and they're like, "So, you're from hell?" But, you know what? I'm just a regular dude. Mic the microbe, Mickey. I just happen to live inside the earth, and we've got a different way of doing things down there.
Lloyd: Up here at the surface, plants use light to consume carbon dioxide to make food for themselves and others.
Barry: But, in the subsurface, of course, there's no sunlight.
Lloyd: So, this ecosystem has to figure out how to make food for everybody without any light, and they do it by instead using chemistry. So, any chemical reaction that yields energy can be used to consume carbon dioxide and feed everyone, and the type of organism that can do this...
Barry: It's called a chemolithoautotroph.
Lloyd: They're microbes that use chemicals, chemo, from rocks, litho to make food, autotroph.
Director: So, if these microbes consume carbon dioxide, then can they help us get rid of some up here?
Mic: Hell yeah. I'll eat your carbon, give it to me. I'll gobble your climate crisis right up. Nom, nom, nom, nom, nom.
Barry: Yeah, we're not going to say that this research points to some climate change solution, because that's not what we study.
Lloyd: But, it is groundbreaking stuff.
Barry: Literally. Groundbreaking.
Director: If you could say one thing to everyone in the world, what would it be?
Mic: Ooh. Please make your checks out to Mic the micro-
Director: No, come on. I mean, what should people know about you and about microbes?
Mic: You humans have been talking about walking on the moon for 60 freaking years. The next frontier isn't in outer space, it's under your feet.