Every time Bugs Bunny stuck his head out of a perfectly round rabbit hole, usually in desert or arctic regions, and say “I should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque,” I wondered why he spent so much time traveling underground instead of picking his head up every once in a while. I was a simple child, as you can tell. Well there’s another creature that we now know is much more well-traveled than we ever could have guessed, though nobody’s sure if it poked its head out or not.
The Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator – or “bold traveler” – has quite a reputation going for it. It was first discovered in 2008 in water samples around 3 km beneath a gold mine in South Africa. Possibly one of the oldest life forms on Earth, it is one of very few that can survive without any sunlight, depending on hydrogen ans sulfates for nutrition. And it is the only species that exists that is the sole organism in their ecosystem. Now scientists know that their ecosystem isn’t limited to just the one location. It also lives in Death Valley, CA. Well, about 900 meters below Death Valley, anyway.
Duane Moser, an associate research professor at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, presented the findings at the AGU Convference last week, saying, “We’re reasonably sure we’re looking at the same bug.” The Census of Deep Life, a project intended to map our planet’s deep biosphere, found the DNA of each microbe had a 99 percent match, despite being half a world away with no interconnected subway system.
Moser theorizes its origin at shallow depths, evolving as it burrowed deeper, possibly returning to the surface through water springs and carried by winds and rains until heading down Route 66 and ending up in the deepest pit in the United States. One would think that something that could live without sunlight would pick a place to live that wasn’t the hottest place on Earth. Maybe that’s the point. An alternate take on the process is the deep-seated microbe could use underground waterways to colonize new areas without ever poking a head out, though this would have had to happen when the continents were still land-locked.
There are rumors a photograph exists with one of the microbes wearing a tiny T-shirt that says, “Han Shot First,” so maybe these guys aren’t as far removed from reality as we think.