Space comes to mind as the last frontier for finding new forms of life, but we still have not explored all of the planet on which we are living. Biologists venture to places both extreme and mundane in the quest to learn more about Earth. Courtesy of the DOE Joint Genome Institute, here is a photo tour of what life is like for these scientists as they travel the world, a trip which resulted in 29 new branches on the tree of life.
The biologists pictured at top sampling at Saginaw Lake in British Columbia got this ship's eye perspective from the deck of their boat Porpita. The scientists themselves described their activity as "measuring reduced sulfur compounds that promote the growth of Microbial Dark Matter in the deep waters of Sakinaw Lake, BC Canada on a cold January morning." The term dark matter is usually encountered describing the mass physicists know theoretically exists but which cannot be observed. It seems fitting to adopt the concept to the tons of earthly mass which remains obscure, but the tools developed in finding the 29 new branches on the tree of life will certainly help shed light on the microbial dark matter.
In some cases, the scientists cannot go where new life may be found. Like NASA engineers, they face habitats unfriendly to human survival. In this image, at Crab Spa, a diffuse-flow hydrothermal vent site on the East Pacific Rise at 9ºN, an underwater robot holds sensors developed by Nadine Le Bris to measure temperature, pH, and sulfide. These deep sea vents feature life forms that use novel chemosynthetic processes to survive without the sunlight and other sustenance we enjoy at the surface of our planet.
The Homestake Mine in South Dakota may seem like an ordinary part of the landscape to friends and neighbors, but could it harbor undiscovered life forms?
Sure enough! Sampling the mine shaft led to 6 candidate phyla (with only 35 known phyla in the animal kingdom and 12 in the plant kingdom, phyla represent a major discovery in the field of biology).
The Etoliko Lagoon, created by an earthquake in western Greece, holds sweet water up to 28 meters (92 feet) deep. Its mirroring waters hide another 8 candidate phyla. Scientists paused from working to capture this image of the view.
New life can also be found at locations that are not so extreme or exotic. This photo shows the boat scientists used to cruise the Gulf of Maine, located between Cape Cod and the southern tip of Nova Scotia on America's northeastern coast. In our own backyard, so to speak, lurks the new candidate phyla SAR406 (marinimicrobia).
This image shows a bioreactor. Often green disposal solutions depend upon finding microbes that can eat the stuff we waste. In this case, terephthalate -- a precursor to the ubiquitous plastic PET -- degrades when the microbes selected for the reactor manage to get energy out of our commodity chemical waste. Developing such technology involves starving the microbes until they "learn" to eat the chemicals we want them to eat. Even the critters we have turned to our own purposes remain in the realm of "dark microbial matter" until light is shed on their identities. Maybe they remain in the dark because visiting the bioreactor is less fun than visiting Greek islands or working with Canadian vistas.
At the end of a hard day finding new life, biologists take an opportunity to relax with a view of the sunset in Hawaii. Ah, the perks of hard study and the pursuit of knowledge.