Scientists have long puzzled over what form alien life might take, if it is indeed ever found. Chances are, it will be so vastly different from life on Earth that we might not even immediately recognize it as life. With so many discoveries being made about life-sustaining environments in our own solar system, it might not take too much longer to once and for all find that we’re not alone in the universe. Now, a new discovery by scientists at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science has shown that even life here on Earth can take forms we never thought imaginable, opening the door to new possibilities elsewhere in the Universe.
According to research published by the Journal of the Royal Society, a strange new species of bacteria, Desulforudis audaxviator, was discovered 3 km (~2 miles) underground in a South African gold mine. What makes this new microbe unique is how the isolated organism has found a way to sustain itself in an environment completely devoid of food sources: by “eating” radiation.
The researchers who discovered Desulforudis audaxviator claim that since the microbe is able to harvest energy from radioactive Uranium, Potassium, and Thorium in the mine, there is a likely possibility that extraterrestrial microbes could survive on background radiation of the cosmos:
Another radiation source in the subsurface environments is secondary particles generated by galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). Using Monte Carlo simulations, it is shown that it is a steady source of energy comparable to that produced by radioactive substances, and the possibility of a slow metabolizing life flourishing on it cannot be ruled out.
While it might be possible for organisms to sustain themselves off of cosmic radiation, there are still other obstacles for life to overcome in space, including extreme temperatures and other, deadlier forms of radiation. Still, the author of this new research, Dimitra Atri, told Science that the discovery of the radiation-eating microbe should give scientists hope that extraterrestrial life might be found in locations we previously might have overlooked:
Desulforudis audaxviator is proof that life can thrive using almost any energy source available. I always think of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park—life finds a way.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t find a way to come to our planet and wipe the galaxy clean of the plague-like scourge that is humankind. Not until George R. R. Martin finishes writing those novels, anyway.