These Deep-Sea Microbes Eat Greenhouse Gases

©. View of the Guaymas Basin seafloor taken through the window of the Alvin submersible. (Brett Baker/University of Texas at Austin)

They may devour oil spills, too. Hope you're hungry little guys, we have a lot to feed you.

What an amazing planet we live on. It's funny, being humans we tend to think we kind of know everything; or everything about our planet, at least. But the folly of that is that we don't know what we don't know, yet it's so easy to think we know it all.

I'm musing on this because of a recent discovery by scientists at The University of Texas at Austin's Marine Science Institute. The team has been taking a submersible – the one that found the Titanic – on spins around the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. And very deep below, 2000 meters beneath the surface, they have found all kinds of previously unknown life in microbial communities living in the extremely hot (400F), deep-sea sediments.

So unknown, in fact, that of the 551 genomes they examined, 22 of them represented new entries in the tree of life. According to Brett Baker, the lead author on a paper about the discovery, these new species were genetically different enough to not only represent new branches in the tree of life, but some were different enough to represent entirely new phyla.

Which is of course remarkable – but here's where it all gets even more interesting. These little perseverant creatures live off of hydrocarbons like methane and butane as energy sources to survive and grow. "Meaning the newly identified bacteria might be helping to limit the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and might one day be useful for cleaning up oil spills," note the researchers.

"This shows the deep oceans contain expansive unexplored biodiversity, and microscopic organisms there are capable of degrading oil and other harmful chemicals," says Baker. "Beneath the ocean floor huge reservoirs of hydrocarbon gases – including methane, propane, butane and others – exist now, and these microbes prevent greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere."

Of course limiting out greenhouse gases and preventing oil spills should be our number one priority – but how crazy to imagine teams of microbes putting their pollutant-eating powers to work in an effort to help us big humans clean up our messes.

And there is so much more we have yet to learn.

According to the authors, only a minuscule amount – about 0.1 percent – of the world's microbes can be cultured, meaning that there are thousands if not millions of microbes that remain undiscovered. Now the team has moved on to sampling areas of the basin that haven't been studied before.

"We think that this is probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of diversity in the Guaymas Basin," Baker says.

Who knows what else they might find there – maybe even more life forms that we can't yet even imagine.

You can read the full paper in Nature Communications.