Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have discovered a microbial ecosystem living deep within the earth that feeds on chemicals produced during tectonic cataclysms.
The process when oceanic and continental plates collide, one plate sinks down or is subducted into the mantle, and the other plate rises, is called tectonic activity. This is the main process by which chemical elements move between the surface of the Earth and it’s interior and eventually return back to the surface.
It is generally believed that this process takes place beyond the reach of life due to the extremely high pressures and temperatures. Life almost certainly does not exist in extreme conditions, when the Earth’s mantle mixes with the crust to form lava, but in recent decades, scientists have learned that microbes penetrate much deeper into the earth’s crust than previously thought.
This is the potential for the discovery of previously unknown types of biological interactions occurring with deep plate tectonic processes.
So the authors discovered a vast microbial ecosystem, which mainly feeds on chemicals: carbon, sulfur, and iron, formed during the subduction of the oceanic plate under Costa Rica.
The team found that this microbial ecosystem absorbs large amounts of carbon produced during subduction; otherwise, it would escape into the atmosphere. This process results in an estimated carbon reduction of up to 22%.