Mysterious life forms found in centuries-old Hawaiian lava caves

Mysterious life forms found in centuries-old Hawaiian lava caves
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Stalactite formation in a Hawaiian cave system from this study with copper minerals and white microbial colonies. Although copper is toxic to many organisms, this formation hosts a microbial community. (Credit: Kenneth Ingham)

The volcanic processes that created the Hawaiian Islands hundreds of years ago also created a network of underground tunnels and caves.

They are cold, dark and full of poisonous gases and minerals. sound, it is quite unfavorable for most forms of life.

However, scientists have discovered that these volcanic vents actually contain highly complex colonies of microbes.

They are the smallest known living organisms on Earth, and we don’t know much about them.

In fact, estimates suggest that 99,999 percent of all microbial species remain unknown. As a result, some call these mysterious life forms “dark matter”.

However, they still make up a large part of Earth’s biomass.

Thick microbial mats hang below the cliff edge in steam vents along the East Rift Zone on Hawaii Island. Image (Credit: Jimmy Saw)

What makes experts so interested in the lava caves of Hawaii is that the conditions there are close to those of Mars or other distant planets.

If microbes can live in these 600-800 year old lava tubes, we may find it on Mars at some stage.

Older lava caves, dating back more than 500 years, typically have a more diverse microbial population, the researchers found.

Therefore, they believe it takes a long time for these tiny creatures to colonize on volcanic basalt. As the environment changes over the centuries, so does their social structure.

When caves are younger and more active, microbial colonies tend to be closer together in terms of species.

“This raises the question, do extreme environments help create more interactive microbial communities where microorganisms are more interdependent?” he said Microbiologist Rebecca Prescott of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“If so, what is it about extreme environments that help create this?”

Green and purple biofilms and microbial mats are common in geothermally active areas on Hawaii Island. (Credit: Stuart Donachie)

Although there is much we do not know, scientists suspect that competition is a stronger force in harsher environments.

“Overall, this study helps show how important it is to study microbes in co-culture rather than growing them alone,” added Prescott.

“Microbes do not grow alone in the natural world. Instead, they grow, live, and interact with many other microorganisms in a sea of ​​chemical signals from other microbes. This can affect their functioning in society by changing their gene expression.’

The results of the research were published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

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