Life is the whole point of the universe. Anyone who says different is either a robot or a hypocrite. Without living things, the vast celestial clockwork is an alarm clock in a cemetery: pointless and annoying even to think about. Sentient beings are by definition the only reason for existence, because we’re the only ones defining that word. Everything from the elephant to the amoeba is a pile of atoms that decided not to just sit there forever, making them a lot smarter than most Internet commenters.
“The way I sit for hours looking at things I hate makes me cool.”
But there are places even more toxic to joy and life than the YouTube comment section (and the commenters who manage to reproduce there). These life-forms put every human who has ever claimed to be “extreme” to shame. After all, they manage to survive …
Scientists discovered millions of simplistic life forms trapped in a toxic hell of asphalt and oil fumes, but were too sophisticated to make a joke about traffic.
Fixed that for ya, smart people.
Pitch Lake is located in Trinidad and Tobago, and we’re fairly sure it was imported direct from hell. About 150 square miles of asphalt, 250 feet deep and bubbling with hydrocarbon fumes seeping from oil reserves, it’s like Mother Nature is passive-aggressively petrochemically polluting herself. And like a boyfriend exploiting the silent treatment to play
Modern Warfare 3, humanity sucks out the asphalt to help pave roads over the rest of the island.
The moral: Don’t start a fight with a people holding construction equipment.
But even in the incredibly heavy-handed metaphor of Pitch Lake, life flourishes, because there are 10 million organisms living in it. Sorry, that’s 10 million organisms per gram of it, just chilling out in the Death Jacuzzi. The environment is so ludicrously lethal that the discovery was reported in Astrobiology, because it had nothing to do with normal life on Earth. These things eat petrochemicals and breathe metal, making them more Transformer STD than Terran life form. Though, in fairness, that wouldn’t be the lowest form of life to screw up the Transformers in the last decade.
Bacteria didn’t film Bumblebee pissing on a man.
This isn’t just one new species; it’s a whole community of bacteria and ancient archaea just hanging around in the modern world. Because when you can relax in a pool of liquid road soaked in gasoline, you can live wherever you want. We might have a few billion years of natural selection on our side, we but haven’t evolved balls big enough to deal with that.
Lake Untersee might sound like a comical foreigner’s description of where you find fish. In reality, it couldn’t be more hostile to properly evolved life if it were The Jersey Shore. The Antarctic lake has been iced over for at least 100,000 years. Its only inflow is from fresh-melted glacier water, which sounds lovely and expensive if you bottle it, but the lake receives less nutrition than a runway model.
Deep-breathing exercises double as lunch.
The same lake has no outflow. It only loses water when it freezes and then sublimates off into the atmosphere. Untersee’s only interaction with the rest of the universe has to happen through a membrane of permanently solid ice that has cut it off from the rest of nature since nature was still making itself up on the fly. Fortunately for science, this means life didn’t bother evolving there, and instead stayed the way it was to begin with — even allowing teams of scientists to find and research stromatolites in the lake. If you’re asking “What the hell are stromatolites?” then you should be more respectful of your ancestors.
Everything’s ancestors. Stromatolites are mounds built by the microorganisms that dominated the first 3.5 billion years of life on Earth, aka most of it, and now only survive in environments utterly inimical to modern life, like frozen alkaline lakes and bits of Australia.
“I still say we should have gone to Antarctica.”
The environment is so ludicrously alien to life as we know it that they sent a NASA team with SETI backup. The reports don’t mention the special forces with flamethrowers, possibly because that’s just standard procedure for projects aiming to release life encased in Antarctic ice since the dawn of being. NASA is interested because life in Lake Untersee supports the possibility of life on Enceladus, a frozen moon of Saturn. Untersee is so stupidly hard to live in that even rocket scientists say, “If life can exist here, it can exist anywhere!”
Not exactly New York. In that it’s clean and you won’t get stabbed.
Nature is pretty good at being insane, but when you absolutely positively have to pervert the laws of everything in awesome ways, you gotta go humanity. Possibly impatient at the continued lack of Godzilla, Japanese scientists threw a bunch of bacteria into an XL-80 ultracentrifuge and turned all the knobs up to 11. Then, they turned them way past that to 400 k g. That’s not 400 kilograms, that’s
400,000 times Earth’s gravity. It’s an acceleration of 3.9 million meters per second squared — one second of which would take you to 1 percent of light-speed if everything in the universe (including the nature of the universe itself) wasn’t getting in your way.
And the life form they were testing didn’t just survive. It grew.
At this point you should be hearing ominous music and people ignoring a lone researcher’s desperate warnings.
The simpler the life form, the more it can adapt to survive things that would kill higher organisms. That’s why reality shows still have thousands of applicants despite being fatal to the human brain. Parococcus denitrificans doesn’t even notice gravity changes up to 74,000 gravities, while our good friend Escheria coli keeps breeding right up to 400 kilogravities. They didn’t just survive, they continued breeding in a new “pellet” form, with hordes of ultragravity-tolerant bacteria crushed together by the incredible pressure. All this time, Pac-Man has been tougher than we ever gave him credit for.
Holy shit, he’s their king.
On the upside, Saccharomyces cerevisiae also survives at increased gravities, so at least we’ll have beer as we fall into the gravity well of a massive body. (We’ve had nights like that.) The results show that, as well as planets, life might survive on non-hot brown dwarf failed stars. Though that’s already been proven by the STD colonies on Tila Tequila.
In the time it takes you to get used to a new house, bacteria can evolve to suit it and spawn new species specifically tuned for your bathroom. Which you should probably clean, you filthy person. The most incredible examples of that are Bacillus isronensis and friends, which
researchers found about 20 miles straight up by lofting a hot air balloon equipped with cryotubes. Which sounds like steampunk, except it’s actually doing something useful.
Lady Clankington’s Little Death Ray
Though they’re not the only ones. (NSFW)
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and colleagues discovered three new species adapted for the stratospheric lifestyle. The bacteria have evolved enhanced tolerance to ultraviolet radiation and consider thin air more than enough live on. And in. The most incredible part is how they got up there in the first place: The researchers hypothesize that they’re the action movie heroes of the micro-organic world, riding the blast wave of massive explosions to get where they need to be. Volcanic explosions, reverse lightning strikes from thunderclouds, the heat plumes from forest fires — these things commute via natural disaster.
Oh man, I missed the volcanic eruption. Now I have to wait until the Midwest catches fire again.
That’s a big deal. There’s a “panspermia” theory, which says that life is like GameFAQs: It might be really hard for the first person to unlock a new level, but once they do, it’s much easier for others to use that instead of starting from scratch. The idea is that the building blocks of life can be fired from planet to planet by cosmic disasters and asteroids. Even if living organisms can’t survive the process, the Lego of life they’re made of can be carried around, especially since we’ve now seen living things surviving tectonic explosions and hypergravity.
Another possibility is the bacteria ascending through gravito-photophoresis, which is a transport for bacteria and an intelligence test for humans (did you read the word or just skip over it?). Gravito-photophoresis is the elevating effect of a shaft of light in a fluid medium — the sunlight heating a column of air, which lifts anything small enough as it goes. Those heavenly rays of sun through the clouds might artistically elevate your soul, but they can assume bacteria’s bodies, too.
It’s impossible to overstate just how aggressively life evolves to suit new environments. It just keeps pumping out slight variations on the theme until something succeeds, no matter how many wither and die in the process (like pop music executives, but less soulless). An amazing example is Halomonas titanicae, designed for only one thing: eating Titanics. Which proves that either life adapts to new environments or an Intelligent Designer has one bastard of a sense of foresight.
And on the fifth day, the Lord took a nanosecond to tune one of the countless millions of bacterial species to eat metal. He planted it on the seafloor, and lo, spake “Wait there a couple of millenniums and I’ll kill over a thousand people to feed you. Mysterious ways.”
This bacteria eats Titanics. Titanics are not something the seafloor has many of. Titanii are not naturally occurring. But we did once drop 50,000 tons of iron on the seafloor, and given the choice between Leonardo DiCaprio’s corpse and a rusting hulk, Nature learned to eat metal. The multiply prefixed gammaproteobacteria was recovered from the wreck, and despite every convention for things recovered from the deep darkness, the site of a mass catastrophic death and the discovery of a new species that can eat metal, it didn’t immediately consume the science probe and learn of our existence. Instead, it kept doing what it adapted to do: eating the goddamn Titanic.
Scaremongers say it’s only a matter of time before we destroy the ecosystem, and they give us way too much credit. We could vaporize the surface of the Earth to a depth of 2 miles and nuke what’s left, and some species would say “Finally! Our time to shine!” Radiation-eating species live 3 miles straight down in a world without the sun, which means they live in an endless energy-deprived hell, but at least they don’t have to deal with idiots painting themselves bright orange.
A team of researchers found these autochthonous organisms at the bottom of a South African gold mine. They were lucky because life is priceless, which means you can’t sell it, which means the mining company had zero interest in discovering a new kind of ecosystem. The scientists were kindly allowed some analysis time while the miners were preparing to excavate a new tunnel, and just as you’d expect from teams delving the bowels of the Earth, they found something where the sun don’t shine. Literally. They discovered a life form utterly cut off from sunlight, aka “the source of everything living you’ve ever seen.” This entirely separate ecosystem replaced photosynthesis with the scientific spirit of the ’50s: the life-giving power of uranium, thorium and potassium, which is always fun for wet and living things!
The bacteria harvest the energy released by these exciting elements, eating radioactively transmuted rocks, drinking the hydrogen peroxide runoff and making a total mockery of our human Iron Stomach competitions. Millions of years ago, they decided that the sun, until then the fusion-powered font of all life on Earth, was for pansies. Uranium Bleach Rock might sound like a band that “plays” guitars by smashing them off the mosh pit’s heads, but that’s what these things eat. Like most things living in deep dankness below normal human street level, they’re not very quick and don’t breed fast. While many bacteria can replicate every hour, these can manage it about once every 300 years. Many of the bacteria down there predate human religion.
The lesson of Chernobyl is that the most dangerous substance in the world is human stupidity. If everyone who whined about nuclear technology actually understood it, the world’s average IQ would increase by 50 points. When idiots drink and drive and kill thousands, we don’t ban cars. But when idiots run emergency shutdown tests with an untrained night crew without telling the designer of the reactor or nuclear authority scientists, then deliberately drive the reactor into the nuclear equivalent of “balanced on tiptoes on a stool perched on a stepladder on a table … made of plutonium,” suddenly all nuclear power is evil. Those responsible were so bad at planning that their driving tests all end with proctologists, and they’re not allowed to undress themselves without three handlers and a fire extinguisher.
“Critical is bad? Boy, is my face red! Or it will be when the massive radiation burns set in!”
The sheer resilience of life was proven when we sent a robot to observe the shattered heart of the Chernobyl reactor number four, ground zero of the worst nuclear accident in history — and found something growing. The robot found black slime growing inside the actual casing of the exploded reactor, which was a nice touch, but perhaps Mother Nature was being a little theatrical. Cryptococcus neoformans is darkened not by a heavy-handed metaphor but by melanin pigment so intense it not only protects them from gamma radiation, but they actually grow faster when exposed to these lethal levels of radiation.
Dr. Graham Beards
Some scientists theorize that they’ve adapted to use nuclear radiation as a power source instead of the sun. They’re not just the Hulk of microorganisms, but much more successful than the Hulk of humans — they actually found a place they can live in peace without people bothering them. (For a guy who whined about being left alone, Bruce Banner spent an awful lot of time alternating between major metropolises and shit-kicker towns where hassling strangers is the local sport.)
Sorry, but this picture is way funnier than any of the comics.
The melanin has an altered chemical structure and magnetic properties to deal with the increased radioactivity. These cells have visibly evolved in response to one of the most dramatic events of the last few decades. They’re incontrovertible proof of adaptation by life, in the last place on Earth you’d expect to find something living. Although it is the first place you’d expect a radioactive mutant.
Luke also finds wonderful things in the most horrible environments, explaining the good side of the Vodkatini. He also tumbles and has a website. Enjoy more incredible evolution with 7 Animals That Are Evolving Right Before Our Eyes and more scientific madness with 7 (Stupid) People Who Sued the Scientific Method.