In Search of Missing Carbon & Life – 'Deep Earth' Mission Planned

It is the fundamental structural element of all living things. It is a key component of many energy sources, and, it is a crucial player in our planet’s climate system. The natural cycling of this element — Carbon (C)  — between earth, atmosphere and ocean maintains the habitable conditions that all Life depends upon.

Much of this cycling and recycling is effected by microbial life living deep under the sea, and even far below the Earth’s crust — nourished by a constant stew of elements and heat convected up from our Earth’s inner core. In fact, nearly everywhere, and at nearly every depth, that humans have dug and drilled, we have found carbon-recycling microbes thriving.

The fate of Earth’s Carbon cycle is intricately bound up with the functioning of these ancient communities of microbes. Their importance can hardly be over-stated. And yet, geologists will tell you that the amount of C that constitutes the known carbon cycle is but a fraction of what’s out there…or in here, as the case may be.

The total amount of C that transforms itself through our planet’s layers is estimated to be 20 to 30 times more than what is currently quantifiable. We know that there must be vast quantities of carbon being sequestered somewhere, but just where, how and how much is a deep mystery. Somewhere, it is theorized, there must be an underground biosphere.

Halobacteria (domain: Archaea) sp. strain NRC-1, each cell about 5 μm long

Extremophile microbes, like hydrogen-metabolizing Bacteria (found near deep-water thermal vents) and iron-catalyzing Archaea (found in large numbers 1 mile below an Antarctic glacier) are themselves  made of carbon. It is speculated that the total mass of all these (hidden) microbial life forms exceeds the total mass of all the life that crawls on the surface or swims in the seas.

“It” only remains to be found. The hunt for this vast reservoir of carbon/carbon-based life may be our Earth’s last, true frontier of scientific exploration.

Enter the Deep Earth Observatory (DEO): a big idea that is just in its first year of a planned 10 year mission. Currently, it is still in the design stage and its leaders are still trying to generate support from governments around the globe. The scientists involved in this ambitious project plan a globally distributed system of sensors — including sensor placement inside volcanoes — that will provide them with a deeper understanding of the planet’s geological, chemical and biological mechanics.

Thermophiles, a type of extremophile, produce some of the bright colors of Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

It may seem strange that such tiny creatures should play such a critical role in the inner workings of our planet (from small things come great consequences). Scientist observe that the microbes’ ability to take up carbon so rapidly makes it a key factor in our Earth’s carbon cycle, and also, in its climate control capability. Further, the DEO may help scientists determine if recent discoveries of large natural gas (methane, CH4) deposits off the coasts of Israel and Brazil are produced through microbial decomposition, or, are the result of high-pressure chemical processes, perhaps both

DEO scientists hope to have microbiologists on site for every future deep drilling operation in order to secure any microbial life before it gets contaminated. The project is being funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which is also responsible for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The latter project seeks to identify or confirm our universe’s missing matter — so-called dark matter. Likewise, the Deep Earth Observatory, like the Sloan Sky survey, is a Big Science mission to find missing matter.

This mission may one day provide us with deeper knowledge of our Earth’s climate, and perhaps, even the means of controlling it.

The DEO plan was presented this past Feb. 20 at the Annual AAAS meeting in Washington D.C. by Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and leader of the Deep Carbon Observatory.

* The Archaea were once though to be a form of Bacteria (as they possess no nucleus/segregated DNA), but subsequent analysis showed that they share some traits in common with Eukaryota (cells possessing a nucleus), such as transcription and translation enzymes. Bacteria and Archaea are now held to be the result of separate evolutionary histories.

Some source material for this article came from ‘The Hunt for Earth’s Missing Carbon’, by By Eric Betz, for ISNS (Feb. 20, 2011).

Top diagram: Mstroeck;  cc- by – sa 3.0 unported;  (text:  Some allotropes of carbon: a) diamond; b) graphite; c) lonsdaleite; d–f) fullerenes (C60, C540, C70); g) amorphous carbon; h) carbon nanotube.)

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