Ancient Life Forms Found Deep Under The Sea | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.08.2002
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Ancient Life Forms Found Deep Under The Sea

German scientists discover micro-organisms which could help in understanding the earth's early life forms - and in the fight against global warming.


New research findings could help cut down greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

For years, scientists have contemplated whether methane, one of the greenhouse gases believed responsible for global warming, could have played a role billions of years ago as a nutrient and source of energy.

Methane could only be broken down with oxygen, they believed, and oxygen only emerged after the development and expansion of plant life.

A new discovery by a group of German, Russian and Ukrainian marine biologists and geologists now puts this theory into question. They have found reefs deep under the sea containing bacteria which process methane without using oxygen.

The reefs in the Black Sea are the first living proof that organic material could develop and exist without oxygen and plant life in the course of the earth's history, the Munich-based Max Planck Society (MPG) reports. The Black Sea contains the world's largest oxygen-free basin.

The missing link

According to MPG, the discovery contributes significantly to the understanding of the earth's early life forms and the development of the biosphere. "The microbial reefs we've found in the Black Sea indicate how large parts of the first ocean could have looked, at a time when there was only a trace of oxygen in the atmosphere," the scientists report.

Marine biologist Professor Antje Boetius of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute in Bremen, a co-author of the study, said the micro-organisms could be the missing link in the chain of very early methane processes.

"Maybe micro-organisms like those found in the Black Sea were the original inhabitants of the earth during a long period of the earth's history, a symbiosis of cells that could grow without oxygen using methane," she said.

Using methane to fight global warming

The findings could also prove useful for climate control in that they could help rid the earth of excess methane, found in abundance in the sea and produced through agriculture.

Boetius said the discovery of a pool of organisms that process methane without oxygen could lead to a way of cutting down potentially harmful greenhouse gases without burning oxygen and producing similarly damaging carbon dioxide.

"It could be a way of hindering climate catastrophe," she said.

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