Chemosynthesis. Credit: NOAA

Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine, part 3: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Extreme Life
Posted: 01/24/13
Author: Garret Fitzpatrick

Summary: The chemosynthetic life that thrives at hydrothermal vents might give us clues to how life arose in the first place. They also might be the same sort of life that could possibly exist on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.

This is Part 3 of a 6-part series telling the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives without relying on the sun as an energy source. It follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can live without the Sun, we may discover how life began on our planet and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.

Hydrogen sulfide is a poison gas that’s lethal for humans even in very low concentrations. Yet, this compound—two parts hydrogen, one part sulfur—turned out to be the food source for bacteria that were driving an entirely new ecosystem. (New to us at least. Some scientists suspect this type of ecosystem might, in fact, be the oldest type of ecosystem on our planet.)

For more than a century, biologists have known that bacterial life can exist based on chemosynthesis, but before the 1977 Galapagos Hydrothermal Expedition, no one had imagined an entire ecosystem could be generated from chemosynthetic processes alone.

Read More: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine, part 3: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa — Astrobiology Magazine.

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