Mysterious life forms discovered in centuries-old Hawaiian lava tubes

Mysterious life forms discovered in centuries-old Hawaiian lava tubes
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A stalactite formation in a Hawaiian cave system from this study with copper minerals and white microbial colonies. Although copper is toxic to many organisms, this formation is home to a microbial community. (Image credit: Kenneth Ingham)

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

They are cold, dark, and full of toxic gases and minerals. Salt, quite inhospitable to most life forms.

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

These are the smallest known living organisms on Earth and we really don’t know much about them.

In fact, estimates suggest that 99,999 percent of all microbial species remain unknown. Hence, some refer to these mysterious life forms as “dark matter.”

Nevertheless, they still make up a large part of the earth’s biomass.

Thick microbial mats hang beneath a ledge in steam vents that run along the Eastern Rift Zone on the island of Hawaii. Image (Credit: Jimmy Saw)

What intrigues experts about Hawaii’s lava tubes is that the conditions there are as close as you can get to those of Mars or other distant planets.

And if microbes can survive in these 600-800 year old lava tubes, then we can Maybe you’ll find some on Mars someday.

Researchers found that older lava tubes, more than 500 years old, typically contained a more diverse population of microbes.

As a result, they believe it takes a long time for these tiny little creatures to colonize the volcanic basalt. As the environment changes over the eons, so does its social structure.

When the burrows are younger and more active, the microbial colonies are closer together in species.

“This leads to the question, do extreme environments help create more interactive microbial communities where microorganisms are more interdependent?” said Microbiologist Rebecca Prescott from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

“And if so, what about extreme environments helps to pull this off?”

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

While there’s a lot we don’t know, scientists suspect competition is a stronger force in harsher environments.

“Overall, this study helps illustrate the importance of studying microbes in co-culture rather than growing them alone (as isolates),” Prescott added.

“In nature, microbes do not grow in isolation. Instead, they grow, live, and interact with many other microbes in a sea of ​​chemical signals from those other microbes. This can then alter their gene expression and affect their roles in the community.’

The results of the study were published in the journal frontiers in microbiology.

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