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Ancient microbes ate each other’s bodies to survive among the Dead Sea

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On the salt surface, the Dead Sea is famous for the making of giddy tourists float like beach balls. Hundreds of meters under the water, however, life is a little less fun.

There choked by some of the saltiest water on Earth, single-celled micro-organisms called archaea battle for the conduct of life the basic functions without oxygen, light or new forms of livelihood. According to a new study published March 22 in the journal Geology, the survival of microbial life under the Dead Sea may even have a time depended on the food of the dead. [The 10 Strangest Places Where Life is Found on Earth]

In their study, researchers from Switzerland and France analyzed long sediment cores drilled out of the center of the Dead Sea, and found evidence that the ancient microbial life accumulated the energy it needed to survive by gobbling up pieces of the dead neighbours that could not hack the harsh conditions .

According to the researchers, these results open a window in the Earth the mysterious and the deep biosphere — the underground world between the earth’s surface and the core, where potentially millions of undiscovered microbial species thrive in the unlikely extreme circumstances.

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“The Dead Sea is the background environment is one of the most extreme ecosystems on the planet,” the authors wrote in their paper. “By studying an environment that pushes life to the limit, we catch a glimpse of the processes that fuel life in the deep subsurface.”

Dead in the water

The Dead Sea (which is not really a sea but a salt lake straddling the borders of Israel, Jordan and Palestine) begins at about 1,400 feet (430 metres below sea level, making it the lowest place on the land. The lake is also one of the saltiest: the waters are almost 10 times saltier than the oceans of the world, leaving only the most salt-loving archaea have a fair shot at survival.

In order to better understand the microbial history of this extreme ecosystem, the authors of the study explored the old sediment samples buried up to 800 feet (245 m) below the surface. In these deep cuts lakebed, the team found traces of long-dead microbial life.

In the salt layers of the lower abdomen, the team found many of the microbial compounds called wax esters — a form of energy storage molecule, which is the world’s smallest organisms when their survival is pushed to the limits. See it as a small carbon-in fridge — but, in order to enable an organism needs in order to eat the fat pieces left by dead microbes that could not survive in their harsh habitats.

Bacteria are well-known bits of their dead neighbors in wax esters, but archaea do not seem to have this skill, the authors wrote. Thus, the team concluded, the wax esters found deep under the Dead Sea is probably derived from the rough bacteria had no other choice than to feed on the corpses of dead archaea to survive their super-salty environment.

This is surprising, because bacteria were previously thought to be unable to adapt to the more extreme ecosystem. However, by “recycling” bit is better adapted microbes, the survival may have in the past, the authors wrote. This can be true not only for the Dead Sea ecosystem, but can also apply to other extreme environments scattered across the planet vast underground biosphere.

“Our results illustrate the high adaptability of the surface, the biosphere, and the ability to use a variety of strategies for the production of energy and retention under unfavorable conditions,” the authors conclude.

In other words, the Dead Sea is perhaps not as dead as you thought.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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