From: Bruce Sterling [email@example.com]
Sent: Sunday, December 22, 2002 4:04 PM
Subject: Viridian Note 00355: More Biosphere Bugs
- Key concepts:
- Oliver Morton, transpermia, origin of life,
Thomas Gold, deep hot biosphere, crude oil, subterranean bacteria,
- Attention Conservation Notice:
- Science journalist Oliver
Morton weighs in on the subject of strange new notions of
It hasn't escaped my attention that this subject
has some pulp science-fictional aspects.
Those strange AMODA people are gonna be playing
their "music" here tonight.
The electronic-art installation is still running here, too.
(((As we were remarking earlier in the most recent
Viridian Note, 00354:)))
"Consider the following, and
the possible interconnections here.
"A: Michael Russell's theory that single-celled life was
formed, not in open seawater, but in water-soaked iron
sulfide rocks in hydrothermal vents. Mineral 'cell walls'
formed first, and then self-replicating chemistry formed
within these tiny stone pockets. If this is true, then
most rocky planets might have formed chemosynthetic life
deep underground, wherever hot water oozes through
chemically active rock.
"B: NASA/Stanford suggests possible fossil Martian
microbes in Antarctic meteorites.
"C: Dirk Schulze-Makuch says there's an odd chemical
imbalance in atmosphere of Venus, which could be caused by
sulfur-metabolizing bacteria, living in damp, pleasant
temperatures in high Venusian clouds.
"D: Oliver Morton's ideas that Earth's cloud formation
involves ocean bacteria nucleating ice crystals. As
Morton puts it, 'Clouds might be plankton's way of moving
a great distance.'
"E: New collision models for asteroids suggest that
chunks of rock might be flung from planet to planet, with
live bacteria intact. Spores of 'Bacillus permians' have
been known to survive for 250 million years.
"F: Thomas Gold's deep hot biosphere theories. Yes, they
are odd and his book makes a wide array of claims. But
those claims don't all have to be factual, in order for
there to be a lot – a whole lot – of primeval living
biomass deep in the crust of the earth. Tectonic drift is
a geological commonplace now, and that wasn't accepted
until the 1960s. How much of what we think we know is
Oliver Morton remarks:
You're right; it's an interesting constellation. Just
to be clear, (D), the original long distance plankton
transport idea isn't mine, but Tim Lenton' s and the late
Bill Hamilton's. Refs are in the piece at:
I just did an article on (C), the Venus stuff, for
Science ("Don't Ignore the Planet Next Door" November 29;
298:1706-1707). The Venus clouds people and the earth
clouds people are beginning to talk to each other.
(B) is, in my view, looking shaky; but the general
idea of a refuge in the Martian depths (analogous to the
refuge in the Venusian clouds – the Mars bugs needed to
warm up when their surface froze and so dug down, while
the Venus bugs needed to cool off when their surface
boiled and so went up) is very much front and centre. (It
also predates the meteorite finding – more on this in my
book "Mapping Mars", in a chapter called "The
Underground".) At the moment, astrobiology is pretty much
(E) is becoming increasingly mainstream, to the
extent that questions about the presence and origin of
life on the terrestrial planets are being decoupled. Life
might have come about only once in this solar system – on
Mars, Venus, the Earth or even, conceivably, the Mars-
sized planet, sometimes called Orpheus or Thelia, that
smacked into the Earth to create the Moon – and still
have ended up on all of the others.
Mars is arguably the best candidate for the origin of
life, because it may have been drier than the others. Hit
a wet planet with a big rock and you boil the entire
oceanic water complement, producing an atmosphere of live
steam that lasts for thousands of years, and thus sends a
sterilising heat pulse quite deep into the crust, which
makes life difficult. Such boiled-ocean events may have
frustrated early life on the Earth a number of times in
the first few hundred million years. They may also have
produced a selective advantage for bugs which can fly
through space – in some such events the only survivable
place to be would be on a rock heading outwards. Most such
bugs would end up back on the planet they were launched
from. Some wouldn't.
Meteorite transfer makes the possibility of life on
other planets at some time in their history greater, which
is exciting if you want to find signs of life elsewhere,
but also makes the possibility of that life having come
about through a separate origin event from our own
smaller, which is frustrating if you want to understand
life in general. Swings and roundabouts. (I've been trying
to get people to refer to this one-to-one exchange of spit
between neighbours as "transpermia", to differentiate it
from broadcast one-to-many panspermia, but so far to
On earthly cloud news, the University of East London
project to start doing RNA analysis of bugs in Earth
clouds looks likely to get underway next year.
On the Gold stuff, a few points. One is that there
are two different propositions: a deep biosphere, and a
deep biosphere that produces hydrocarbons from primordial
methane. Many will buy into the first, pretty much only
Thomas Gold and his Russian colleagues into the second
(primordial methane requires that the mantle be chemically
reduced, whereas a lot of other evidence suggests that
it's largely oxidised). Critics point out that, for Gold,
the deep biosphere is essentially an epicycle added to
explain the clearly biogenic markers in oil; these were a
problem for the original version of the deep abiogenic
Another is that the biomass of a system is not
necessarily an indicator of its importance in the global
cycles. Terrestrial biomass is hundreds of times that of
the oceans, but the oceans are pretty close to equal in
terms of such things as carbon sinkage. If there's a lot
of biomass underground, that doesn't mean it's doing much.
In nutrient-poor systems the doubling time for bacteria
can become incredibly slow – decades, maybe centuries,
maybe more. When biomass is taken as equivalent to the
"amount of life" there's a risk of mistaking the size of
the fireplace for the heat of the flame.
Another is that your point that "Tectonic drift is a
geological commonplace now, and that wasn't accepted until
the 1960s" has a certain irony, in that Gold doesn't
accept plate tectonics.
Gold makes much of reports of some oil fields
apparently refilling themselves from beneath, but he has
to face the fact that in general US oil production has
followed pretty much exactly the curve that Hubbert
predicted it would without refilling. I find it hard to
believe that oil geologists (who, in my experience really
want to find more oil* – it's built into their psyches
and their career incentives far more than a need to be
intellectually modish is) would want to or be able to
ignore this or hush it up. But then institutions do do
strange things to the way people think.
I wish there was a better dialogue between Gold and
the geologists; there are strange things going on down
there, whether or not they produce the hydrocarbons. But I
fear there won't be. Gold really does seem to think
geologists are all dunces, and geological lore is full of
stories about physicists telling them what could or could
not be possible and then ending up wrong. Lord Kelvin on
the age of the earth was wrong, most notably, but there
were also physical arguments against continental drift,
which many field geologists, expecially paleontologists,
were inclined to accept. There's a very good book about
this by Naomi Oreskes called "The Rejection of Continental
Drift". This means geologists see interventions like
Gold's as arrogant and ignorant, and may be tempted to
dismiss them without sufficient thought.
For more Gold, see an interview I did with him a few
(Ignore silly subbing error as to his age – Professor
Gold is in his 80s, not 90s)
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"The equivalent in scientific reportage
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-- The Sunday Times
(no, I don't know what that means, either...)
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O
SO, MICROBES EVOLVED TO HOP ON AND OFF
OF PLANETS BEING SMASHED. OKAY, I GUESS
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O