The search for dark matter has been a quest of physicists for decades. While some evidence suggests that the universe could be made up of up to 85% of this invisible and undetectable form of matter, scientists have yet to conclusively identify it in the wild; most of the evidence is gleaned from the unexplained gravitational effects that something is exerting on the matter we can see. Does dark matter actually exist, or is the theory a modern-day four humours?
Time will tell. In the meantime, scientists in a different discipline are uncovering evidence that other types of dark matter may be all around us: living matter. According to recent discoveries in microbiology, there could be an entire branch of the tree of life composed of unknown forms of “dark life.” It’s only been a few hundred years since Hooke and Van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms – just imagine what we’ll know about in a few hundred more. The really weird stuff.
Mark Miller, a biochemist at the University of California San Diego, was recently awarded close to $3 by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to study these mysterious forms of dark life. According to Miller, advances in computing power has produced evidence of unknown forms of life which resist being cultured in petri dishes the way other microbes can. Part of the reason these life forms have evaded discovery is the fact that they live in exotic or near-unreachable environments like within deep sea vents or the inside of dolphins’ mouths. Yuck.
Soon, Miller says, we may be able to conclusively prove the existence of these organisms through massive data collection performed by supercomputers:
Dark life is those organisms that are not visible to the human eye and cannot be successfully cultured. It’s kind of mind-blowing. There are whole metabolic pathways that I, as a classically-trained biochemist, think are essential for life that seem to be missing from these new organisms. And until we had these very sophisticated DNA techniques available to us, we also could not detect it.
“This is an interesting time,” Miller adds, “because DNA sequencing is cheap: you can get all the data you want. But you get so much data you choke on it.” Sure beats choking to death on croissants on live TV.
Could we be on the verge of discovering entire new ecosystems of unknown organisms? Given that the search for alien life has taken to focusing on microbes, this type of research will be essential for providing space agencies with the tools they need to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before. Could first contact happen in our lifetime? Even it if it’s with a microbe, I’ll take it as a win.