Thursday, December 28, 2006

I Think This May Be Important

According to a report in the journal Science, tiny microbes have been discovered living in acidic drainage water from a mine in Northern California. The microbes, members of an ancient family of organisms known as archaea, formed a pink scum on green pools of hot mine water laden with toxic metals, including arsenic. In their paper, the scientists call the microbes “smaller than any other known cellular life form.”

The discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending down miles whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life. It may also influence the search for microscopic life forms elsewhere in the solar system, a discovery that would prove that life in the universe is not unique to Earth but an inherent property of matter.

The tiny microbes came from an abandoned mine at Iron Mountain in Shasta County, California, which produced gold, silver, iron and copper before closing in 1963. Today, rain and surface water run over exposed minerals, producing sulfuric acid. The mine is one of the largest Superfund cleanup sites. Starting in 2002, scientists obtained drops of the acidic slime and searched for genetic signs of novel microbes.

The microbes are about 200 nanometers wide — the size of large viruses, which scientists consider lifeless because they cannot reproduce on their own. Bacteria average about five times that size. The scientists must do further tests to confirm that the organisms are the smallest ever found, and that they can reproduce. If those analyses hold up, they said in their Science paper, “it may be necessary to reconsider existing paradigms for the minimum requirements for life.”

So life on this planet is much more prevalent that previously thought. This implies that the web of life is larger, richer and more pervasive than we had known, and that life of earth isn't confined to the flora and fauna of our childhood education.

If each one of these microorganisms is considered a unique individual life form, then by sheer numbers most re-births and prior incarnations would be exotic microbes of one sort or another, making the occurrence of a human birth all the more remarkable. If the mass of organisms is not considered to be an aggregation of individuals, but one large reservoir of living bio-mass, it makes one question where the line is drawn between individuals and living bio-mass, or if we need to re-think the concept of individual lives.

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