Science & Tech

Texas A&M Research Team Finds Life Deep Beneath Ocean Floor

The cores show life present at 2,600 feet below the Indian Ocean seafloor. The discovery could lead to similar finds around the world.
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications March 16, 2020

The JOIDES Resolution off the coast of Hawaii.
Scientists have found life in ocean cores drilled by teams from the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP).



A team of scientists – including two Texas A&M University researchers – have uncovered cores that contain life at some of the deepest levels ever found in subseafloor ancient rocks. Their discovery could open new doors for finding life at other remote areas of the word.

Jason Sylvan, assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography, and graduate student Shu Ying Wee, along with a team of international scientists, have had their work published in the current issue of Nature.

The team examined ocean cores from the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) that were drilled almost 2,600 feet beneath the floor of the Indian Ocean.

They found tiny microbes that are alive and active in the rock cores, and revealed how they survive so deep below the seafloor in an environment with no light, barely any space and very little food.

“They are tiny, around 1 micrometer,” Sylvan said. “We can’t tell the age, but assume them to be currently extant, so not necessarily old, but in an environment that is extreme and subsurface. We believe this is the first research to show active microbes in this environment and to be able to describe their lifestyles using such a broad array of data streams.”

He said the findings could reveal secrets about how the Earth evolved and how life – no matter how small – can find ways to survive even in the most harsh and difficult of environments.

“This environment and lower oceanic crust is comprised largely of types of material called gabbro and peridotite, and these allow for some chemical reactions that were likely present on early Earth and also on other planets where water and volcanic rocks interact, Sylvan said.

“So this is an exciting discovery that expands the places on our own planet where life has been found, and also tells us what to look for elsewhere in the solar system.”

IODP is an international research collaboration that coordinates seagoing expeditions to study the history of the Earth recorded in sediments and rocks beneath the ocean floor. For the past 34 years, Texas A&M has operated the JOIDES Resolution research ship on behalf of the National Science Foundation to study the history of the Earth recorded in those sediments and rocks.

Sylvan said the research is especially noteworthy for Texas A&M because “the cell counts and methane measurements were conducted here on campus for this type of work.

“It also shows us that microbial life is likely to persist wherever there is room for it and that it will evolve ways to live in those difficult environments,” he said.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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