VSL:SCIENCE // Meet the world’s loneliest germ

Ecologically speaking, the most hostile environments tend to be the least diverse. But even so, scientists were stunned to find

Ecologically speaking, the most hostile environments tend to be the least diverse. But even so, scientists were stunned to find the first single-species ecosystem, trapped in rock fissures three kilometers down in a South African gold mine.

The species — a stick-shaped bacterium — does just fine without air and light. As described on the Canadian science podcast “Quirks and Quarks,” the bug lives in water that’s millions of years old and — at 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) — almost hot enough to burn human flesh. What does it eat? Rocks. Scientists have named it Candidatus desulforudis audaxviator (the last word, an homage to Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Center of the Earth, means “bold traveler”).

So what, you say? Well, think of Mars: These bacteria are living proof that it’s possible for organisms to survive — and thrive — in the most radically inhospitable, inorganic environments. And while the surface environments of different planets vary widely, their interiors do not — meaning that Mars or some other planet very likely offers an environment much like that of the South African mine.

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