'Extreme Science' Goes In Search Of The 'Worms From Hell'

Originally published on June 14, 2011 11:50 am

Often in the reporting about science, the adventure, the risk and the physical difficulty of the research gets shunted aside and ignored. Science tends to be seen as the work of people who don't willingly expose themselves to physical hardship and danger.

Exceptions to this perception, including astronauts and heroic researchers such as Jonas Salk (who famously took an early dose of the polio vaccine, along with his wife and children, to hopefully demonstrate its safety), are few and far between.

This came to mind with reporting about a recent and surprising discovery: that complex life forms, in this case nematodes or "worms from hell," live a mile and more below the surface of the Earth.

The research, led by Belgian nematodologist Gaetan Borgonie and Princeton geo-microbiologist Tullis Onstott, took place in the deep gold and platinum mines of South Africa — the deepest cuts ever made into the planet by man. Along with their colleagues, mostly from the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, they descended into the deep mines dozens, even scores of times — withstanding steamy temperatures that are at times well above 100 degrees F. It's an environment where internal body temperatures can spike and hazy hallucinations are common.

The nematodes and microbes they've found (that were rightly deemed a significant addition to our knowledge of the world and possibly of other worlds) came out of boreholes where the water temperature topped 130 degrees.

My own appreciation of their arduous work in the world of extremophiles is grounded in the two subterranean journeys I had the opportunity to take with team members. As part of the reporting for my book First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, I wanted to watch and learn from the scientists at work in the field. This trip deep under ground was about as dramatic a venture as might be imagined.

The South African mines are much safer now than they used to be. But accidents still happen and everyone going below is equipped with elaborate safety gear. Nothing can really prepare you for the body blows from the stifling heat. Thirsty or not, we were told to keep drinking water, or else.

While I was carrying a camera, a tape recorder and some water in my backpack, the researchers had 55-65 pounds of equipment added to their load. They carried even more weight after their canisters were filled with borehole water for the trip back to the surface.

The Northam Platinum mine that I visited with Borgonie and others had miles of underground shafts on five levels. Getting to the spots the researchers needed to visit was a definite trek. We were underground for five or six hours and we all came up exhausted.

I had the liberty to then get a night's sleep; the others were up in the middle of the night to be ready for the descent of the 5 a.m. shift. They had left filters on the boreholes and now they had to collect them.

What is important, and will be lasting about this work, is the discovery of complex life at depths where it had never been found before (and where even microbial life was considered impossible 15 years ago.) The discovery not only broadens our understanding of the subterranean world where, after all, more than half the Earth's biomass makes its living. It also suggests that if life survives beneath the frigid, irradiated surface of Mars, for instance, it might not be solely of the single-cell variety.

The work is also a reminder that the men and women of science willingly and regularly descend into ocean trenches and deep mines, fly into smoldering volcanoes and endure punishing Antarctic cold and Atacama Desert heat to collect the information that is telling us so much that is new and remarkable to man about the world we live in.

Extreme science is how I think of it, and it's definitely not for the faint of heart.

Marc Kaufman is a science writer and national editor at The Washington Post. He is also the author of the new book First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth.

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