Mysterious life forms were discovered in Hawaii’s lava caves centuries ago

Stalactite formation in the Hawaiian cave system of this study with copper minerals and white bacterial colonies. Although copper is toxic to many organisms, this formation hosts a microbial community. (credit: Kenneth Ingham)

Hundreds of years ago, the volcanic processes that created the Hawaiian Islands also formed a network of underground tunnels and caves.

It is cold, dark, and full of toxic gases and metals. So, Pretty much inhospitable to most life forms.

However, scientists have discovered that these volcanic vents actually contain complex, sprawling colonies of microbes.

These are the smallest living things known on Earth and we don’t know much about them at all.

In fact, it is estimated that 99.999 percent of all types of microbes remain unknown. As a result, some refer to these mysterious life forms as “dark matter.”

However, they still make up a huge amount of Earth’s biomass.

Thick microbial mats hang under a rocky ledge in steam vents that run along the eastern rift zone on the island of Hawaii. Image (Credit: Jimmy Saw)

What has piqued the interest of experts in Hawaii’s lava caves is that conditions there are as close as possible to those of Mars or other distant planets.

And if microbes can survive in lava tubes that are 600-800 years old, then we You may find some of them on Mars at some point.

Researchers have found that ancient lava caves, dating back more than 500 years, usually contain a much more diverse set of microbes.

Therefore, they believe that these little creatures take a long time to colonize the volcanic basalt. As the environment changes over the ages, so does its social structure.

When the caves are younger and more active, the microbial colonies are closer together in terms of species.

“This leads us to the question, do extreme environments help create more interactive microbial communities, with microorganisms more dependent on each other?” He said Microbiologist Rebecca Prescott of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“And if so, what about the harsh environments that help create this?”

Green and purple biofilms and microbial mats are common in thermally active sites on the island of Hawaii. (credit: Stuart Donachie)

Although there is a lot we don’t know, scientists believe competition is a stronger force in harsh environments.

“Overall, this study helps illustrate how important it is to study microbes in co-culture, rather than culturing them alone (as isolate),” Prescott added.

“In the natural world, microbes do not grow in isolation. Instead, they grow, live and interact with many other microorganisms in a sea of ​​chemical signals from those other microbes. This can alter their gene expression, affecting their functions in society. .

The results of the study were published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

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