Lined up in a cold laboratory, a group of scientists from around the world are attempting to bring organisms back from the dead. Bundled up in warm layers, they carefully feed ancient life forms that have remained dormant since dinosaurs walked the Earth. And despite all expectations, the things slowly wake up, reviving after 100 million years of inaction.
This is a scene that played out in a study headed up by Yuki Morono of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). Under strict aseptic conditions similar to those used for containing pathogens, the team meticulously studied samples of ancient life. And what they found caught them all by surprise.
The story began in a region known today as the South Pacific Gyre, an area of water off the eastern coast of Australia. With a reputation as one of the most lifeless parts of the world’s oceans, it’s a place almost completely devoid of food and nutrients. And yet, deep beneath the surface, something has been lurking for millions of years.
During the Mesozoic Era, countless strange organisms thrived in this unlikely environment. But while the world moved on, these things rested in a sort of epic slumber. But now, thanks to work conducted at JAMSTEC, they have awakened. And this very fact has startling implications for life on our planet and beyond.
Before its starring role in this strange experiment, the South Pacific Gyre already held a number of dubious claims to fame. Situated between Australia and South America, it borders the southerly Antarctic currents and the more northernly Equator. And at its heart is a point known enigmatically as the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility.”
Essentially, this means that the center of the South Pacific Gyre is the point on Earth which is farthest away from any continents. And as such, it’s as far away as it’s possible to be from the productive parts of our planet’s oceans. In short, it’s the marine equivalent of a desert.
According to experts, there are five gyres – a type of oceanic current system – on Earth. But while some of these are greatly affected by continents, the South Pacific Gyre largely ranges across open water. As a result, this region is low on the marine nutrients that are typically swept in from the continental soil.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing that makes the South Pacific Gyre an unappealing habitat for most forms of life. Over the years, scientists have been observing the great piles of trash that accumulate in ocean currents around the world. For example, the region known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre is known as the biggest marine mass of plastics on Earth.
However, in 2011 experts discovered a similar patch growing in the South Pacific Gyre. Located some 700 miles from mainland Chile, between the South American country and Easter Island, it’s believed to cover almost two million square miles. For context, that’s larger than the whole of India – or roughly half the size of the United States.
Like its equivalent in the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Garbage Patch is predominately made up of microplastics. In a 2017 interview with Science News for Students, researcher Charles Moore explained, “We’d stand on the bow and see hundreds of pieces in a few minutes. It looks like plastic dust on the ocean.”
Amazingly, it seems that even the currents of the South Pacific Gyre can’t keep plastics out of the sea. But these polluted, nutrient-poor conditions aren’t the only barrier to life in this region. According to experts, this part of the planet also experiences unusually high levels of UV radiation, posing a further challenge to any organisms there.
Despite all these factors, however, some stubborn forms of life remain in the South Pacific Gyre. Surprisingly, endangered leatherback turtles are among the few species that linger in this marine desert, sometimes staying for months on end. And although their presence has long been a mystery, scientists are beginning to get to the bottom of this anomaly.
Apparently, researchers now believe, a significant population of jellyfish could be thriving in the South Pacific Gyre. These jellyfish, then, would serve as an important source of food for the leatherbacks. And in other studies, meanwhile, experts have noted the presence of lanternfish in the region. These creatures, however, were found to have plastic in their systems.
In a study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, researchers analyzed the surface waters of the South Pacific Gyre. And even though the organisms were far fewer than in other parts of the world’s oceans, they were undeniably present. In one notable observation, a life form known as AEGEAN-169 was noted, despite having been previously noted for preferring deep water.
Around the same time, the team of researchers led by Morono were hard at work on their experiment. But what ancient monsters were they attempting to revive after a long slumber of millions of years? Well, at thousands of feet below sea level, all manner of strange life forms thrive.
Take, for example, the creature known informally as the Darth Vader isopod. Discovered in 2018, this terrifying critter – officially dubbed Bathynomus raksasa – bears a striking resemblance to the villain from the Star Wars movies. Found at depths of over 3,000 feet, it averages out at 13 inches long.
Or perhaps the team at JAMSTEC managed to revive something like the Dumbo octopus, a strange cephalopod that can live around 13,000 feet beneath the surface. Unlike similar species that use jet propulsion to move through the water, these creatures do something completely different. By flapping their large, ear-like fins, they are able to move through the ocean at surprising speed.
Even further down, all manner of odd creatures inhabit a world far from human observation. And despite the terrific pressure experienced at such depths, life forms such as the snailfish, the coffinfish and the cookiecutter shark seem to thrive. But despite their bizarre appearances, they share these far-flung depths with something much stranger.
It was these mysterious organisms that the team from JAMSTEC aimed to retrieve from the heart of the South Pacific Gyre. The group worked with researchers from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Kochi University and Marine Works Japan, as well as the URI Graduate School of Oceanography in the United States. Together, they all set out to understand more about this supposedly lifeless environment.
Beginning in the fall of 2010, a group headed up by JAMSTEC’s Fumio Inagaki boarded the research vessel JOIDES Resolution and set sail for the South Pacific. There, they began to drill, reaching depths of over 300 feet beneath the ocean floor. This equated to some 20,000 feet below the surface.
But what were they looking for? In a press release issued by JAMSTEC in July 2020, Morono explained, “Our main question was whether life could exist in such a nutrient-limited environment or if this was a lifeless zone. And we wanted to know how long the microbes could sustain their life in a near-absence of food.”
Soon, the team realized that conditions at the bottom of the South Pacific Gyre might not be quite as desperate as they’d once imagined. In fact, they discovered oxygen in each core sample retrieved from the ocean floor. Using this data, experts were able to conclude that the life-giving gas may actually penetrate deep beneath the sediment.
But did this mean that life could survive even beneath the ocean floor? Initially, researchers were reportedly dubious. In a July 2020 interview with The New York Times, Morono explained, “You are packed into the sediment and cannot move. I cannot even imagine such a harsh environment as a human.”
However, it soon became clear that there were microbes deep beneath the South Pacific Gyre, in tiers of mud that had been laid more than 100 million years ago. But were they little more than relics, or could they be brought back to life? To answer that question, the team began a painstaking process.
Given their great age, the microbes were fragile, and the researchers were afraid to cause any further disruption to their delicate state. And so, the scientists went to great lengths to recreate the atmosphere of the South Pacific Gyre in their laboratory. Dropping the temperature to around 50 °F, they spent their days wrapped in warm layers against the cold.
Carefully, the researchers began to feed the ancient microbes to see if they would revive. In the press release, Morono explained, “At first I was skeptical, but we found that up to 99.1 percent of the microbes in sediment deposited 101.5 million years ago were still alive and were ready to eat.”
Revived by the food, the microbes began dividing within days – despite the fact that they’d been dormant for millions of years. And over the following months, the researchers continued to observe the organisms as they multiplied. When they were measured some 80 weeks into the experiment, many of them had thrived.
So, how exactly did the microbes remain alive for so long in the harsh conditions beneath the South Pacific Gyre? According to experts, organisms can sometimes survive in challenging environments by hovering on the very brink of death. In other words, they slow their metabolism down to a snail’s pace.
In this state, the organisms are still technically alive – and they can survive on the most meager of rations. Speaking to The New York Times, geomicrobiologist Nagissa Mahmoudi referred to the process as “the slow lane of life.” Furthermore, as she explained, “[The organisms are] not really thriving. They’re just hanging on.”
Such was the case, it seems, with the microbes retrieved from beneath the South Pacific Gyre. Resuscitated after millions of years, they’d been resting in suspended animation since the time of the dinosaurs. Also in an interview with The New York Times, another geomicrobiologist, Virginia Edgcombe, explained that the organisms were, “Just kind of waiting for conditions to improve.”
More colloquially, the University of Rhode Island’s Steven D’Hondt expressed his surprise that the microbes were ready to “sit up and party on” after so many years. Meanwhile, others pointed out that the organisms are technically among the oldest still living on planet Earth. However, that record could soon be broken.
According to experts, the oldest parts of the ocean floor have been dated to around 200 million years ago – a full 100 million years before the JAMSTEC samples. And although sediment of this age has yet to be tested, there’s no reason to believe that it doesn’t contain microbes. So, if these can also be revived, we’d be looking at living organisms from the Jurassic era.
As D’Hondt explained in the statement, “What’s most exciting about this study is that it shows that there are no limits to life in the old sediment of the world’s oceans. In the oldest sediment we’ve drilled, with the least amount of food, there are still living organisms, and they can wake up, grow and multiply.”
But the implications of this study could reach even further than the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Certainly, it seems clear that these microbes are capable of surviving in the most inhospitable of environments. And so, some researchers have begun to ponder what the organisms might be able to teach us about life on other planets.
Speaking to The New York Times, Mahmoudi said, “This opens up a whole Pandora’s box for where we could find life elsewhere in the universe.” In an August 2020 interview with Express, the University of North Carolina’s Andreas Teske explained that, while some planets might look barren, they, “May be holding out in the subsurface.”
But while the research by JAMSTEC may help to answer some age-old questions, it’s posed some new ones as well. For example, the researchers are still unsure of the exact age of the organisms revived during the study. Speaking to Express, D’Hondt explained, “When I speak of these microbes as locked in there for 100 million years, we don’t know if they’re the same microbial cells or not.”
D’Hondt went on, “We know that its ancestors, if you will, were locked up 100 million years ago. And the problem is the flux of energy is so low, that in principle, they haven’t had enough energy to divide… And so this means one of three things really. Either the cells are living for tens of millions of years without dividing, which is an extraordinary thing. Or they’re dividing on way too little energy compared to our current theory, which is also an extraordinary thing.”
“[The microbes] might be able to survive and divide on a millionth as much energy as usual in the world around us,” D’Hondt speculated. “And then the third possibility is that there’s some unknown source of energy that they’re tapping, [that] we haven’t really considered.” For the moment at least, researchers are unsure exactly which of these miracles they’ve witnessed during the JAMSTEC study.
Moving forward, studies such as this could also help us to understand more about how life on our planet evolved. According to experts, science is still clueless as to what caused complex cells to first appear. But by studying ancient microbes, researchers believe, we might find some answers as to what kickstarted this process.
In a statement, Morono explained, “This study shows that the subseafloor is an excellent location to explore the limits of life on Earth.” So, could the microbes revived by JAMSTEC shed some light on this mysterious process? For now, the study is over, although the depths of the South Pacific Gyre could still have secrets to reveal.