B-movie title, or tagline for an important scientific paper? For now, it’s the latter. A team of researchers led by Princeton geoscientist Tullis Onstott *81 documented the presence of half-millimeter worms living more than a mile underground in South African gold mines. The new species, Halicephalobus mephisto, is the first mulitcellular organism found at such depths outside of the world’s oceans. The discovery, reported in Nature June 1, may provide some indication of the sorts of creatures that could survive in inhospitable nooks elsewhere in the galaxy, like under the surface of Mars.
Onstott, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton and joined the faculty in 1985, has spent most of the last 15 years studying subsurface microbial life, a journey that’s taken him to African mines and a remote plot of Canadian permafrost. He also is one of three instructors for “Life in the Universe,” an undergraduate course that explores astrobiology.
Onstott’s previous work turned up interesting single-cell organisms at extreme depths, but nothing like the roundworms that were first discovered by collaborator Gaetan Borgonie of the University of Ghent. In an interview with The Washington Post, Onstott compared the find to spotting “Moby Dick in Lake Ontario.”
“This is telling us something brand new,” he said. “For a relatively complex creature like a nematode to penetrate that deep is simply remarkable.”
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