What breathes sulfur, eats fool’s gold and could show us where life came from?

The Independent puzzles over a biological riddle – a strange microbe that doesn’t need oxygen or sunlight to get by. Instead, it thrives deep underground living off fool’s gold:

Undisturbed for as long as 2 billion years, the Kidd Mine in Canada is the deepest area ever explored on land by humans and home to the oldest known reservoir of water on the planet.

Now a research team from the University of Toronto overseen by acclaimed geologist Barbara Sherwood Lollar, have found single cell organisms had managed to survive in the waters of the Kidd Mine by feeding from the chemicals produced by interaction between the reservoir and the surrounding rocks.

In particular, Pyrite, known as fool’s gold, was found to be sustaining the life forms – which have evolved to not require oxygen or sunlight.

“It’s a fascinating system where the organisms are literally eating fool’s gold to survive,”Dr Sherwood Lollar told NBC News. “What we are finding is so exciting — like ‘being a kid again’ level exciting.”

The discovery helps to unpick the puzzle of how deep water organisms can survive as scientists look to hidden sealed caves and other areas to unpick the earth’s deep biosphere – dubbed the “underground galapagos”.

A 2018 report from the Deep Carbon Observatory estimated that the number of cells living deep below the earth’s surface stands at five-hundred-thousand-trillion-trillion.

Dr Sherwood Lollar’s team are now looking to sequence the genes of the organisms, which they will then compare to others deep underground to see if they share a family tree, and how different they are from one another – a study that could help science unlock the secret of where, and how, life began on Earth.

[via Mr. Barnett]