Shout at the Devil (Worm)

June 20, 2011

Eva Gusnowski

The nematode holds a special place in my heart. After working with these small worms for the past 3 years, they’re almost like a wonderful little pet. A pet that reproduces at an incredible rate and lives in garbage, that is. They might not be as cuddly as your standard puppy, but are loving nonetheless. Except maybe for the new species that was recently discovered.

The subsurface biosphere is a collection of single-cell organisms that lives in the Earth’s crust. Although it is possible to find multicellular organisms living in the crust as well, the further down you go, the more rare it is due to the increased temperature and limited food sources. Many species of bacteria called thermophiles are capable of living at high temperatures, but it is extremely rare to find a multicellular organism that can withstand that kind of heat.

devil worm, H. mephisto

The “devil worm,” a new species of nematode called Halicephalobus mephisto, was recently discovered living in the water in deep fracture mines in South Africa. Although they don’t carry pitchforks, these worms are able to grow at temperatures as high as 41°C and were recovered from mines extending between 900-3600 meters below the surface. To put this in perspective, previous attempts to look for subsurface multicellular organisms found algae, fungi and flagellates 200 meters below the surface in South Carolina, and 200-450 meters below the surface in Sweden. No wonder they’re called devil worms. Also, because of the abundance of bacteria that live in the subsurface biosphere, the nematode’s chosen lunch, there’s enough food to last the worms for thousands of years. So even without further bacterial insertion into the subsurface biosphere, these nematodes will continue to grow so incredibly far beneath the Earth’s surface.

Not only does this mean that the subsurface biosphere is much more complex than was initially thought, but it also has implications for extraterrestrial life. If these nematodes can survive this far beneath the Earth’s surface, then what about deep within the crust of other planets? The possibility that there is life in other planets, not on them, and that we simply haven’t been able to find it yet due to technological constraints is an attractive possibility, at least for me. For now, we’ll just have to dream about our little Earthling worm friends and their cousins on Mars. Or more accurately, their cousins in Mars. Maybe next time the rovers won’t be going across the red planet, but down into it.

mars, H. mephisto

The worm has taught us so much, and now it’s taking science to whole new worlds. Literally. We’ll see you in hell devil worm, if we don’t see you in Mars first.



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