The most extreme life on Earth part three: the great deep sea farmers

In the abyss of the deep, vents provide energy for an oasis of incredible and bizarre life.

The bottom of our oceans are a black expanse of nothingness for hundreds of kilometers in each direction. Yet in the darkness of the deep sea desert, hydrothermal vents provide a spectacular oasis, as densely populated as most ecosystems on land, boasting an array of the strangest animals on the planet.

In the deep abyss, you have to deal with crushingly high pressures, low and high temperatures but most of all, an absence of energy. About a kilometre down there is no light and without photosynthesis, or basically anything else, finding an energy source is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The vents provide energy by constantly pumping superheated water (up to 400oC, as at high pressures the boiling point of water increases), which have previously gathered minerals in the rock below.

Large animals can’t use this chemical energy directly, but incredibly they literally farm microbes which can.

Tube worms (above and below) can grow to a massive 3 meters long, and they are gross. Perhaps the weirdest thing about them isn’t the fact that they look like a garden worm on steroids, but that they don’t have an anus. Instead, they gather their excrement in a sac, which slowly fills up and poisons them until they die. More remarkable still, their farming of microbes has gone so far that they have replaced their digestive tract with their livestock. Infact, half of the body weight of a tube worm is pure microbes, constantly using the hydrogen sulphide to provide the worm with energy.

The tube worm outside its shell showing the sac which slowly fills up with its own excrement.

Pompeii worms are equally as bizarre, but farm their microbes in a more traditional sense (kind of). They harbour the livestock on their back, let them grow and then let other worms feed on them. Vent shrimps do something similar, growing microbes on their body, but instead of letting others harvest them, they wait until they shed their skin, and then eat their old carcass.

A Pompeii worm

Considering these crazy creatures have been farming for millions of years, and we only started 12,000 years ago, maybe they’ve beaten us other things? If we look further maybe they’ve got little cars and record players, and are studying humans in tiny, deep sea laboratories.

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The most extreme life on the planet part two: living for 250 million years.

Could a microbe (arrow) live inside a salt crystal for 250million years?

On the turn of the millennia, Russell Vreeland released an incredibly controversial paper, in which he claimed they had found a microbe that had been alive for 250 million years. That’s your life, 30000000 times. More remarkable still, the microbe had survived inside a salt crystal (above).

Originally, it was received with a great deal of caution in the scientific community, as no-one thought life could persist that long, even if in suspended animation, let alone active and growing. After all, how do you get energy to grow for a quarter of a billion years?

Since then, another scientist, Brian Schubert, devised a more robust experiment, suggesting that microbes can live off the glycerol produced by just one cell of green algae for 12.5 million years. The glycerol would provide energy for cell repair whilst preventing dehydration and protein damage.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility then, that life could persist for 250 million years, or even longer. Could Vreeland have been right all along? In a booming scientific field, the race is on to find out.

Extreme life part one: volcanoes:https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/the-most-extreme-life-on-the-planet-part-one-life-in-volcanos/‎(opens in a new tab)

To understand how long 250 million years read: Feel old yet? Understanding just how ancient Earth is: https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/04/10/feel-old-yet-understanding-just-how-ancient-earth-is/‎(opens in a new tab)

The unlikely antidote to the Black Widow Spider bite.

Black Widow Spiders, a horror story writers best friend, are characterised by their creepy, spindly legs, bulbous black body and red skull-like markings. A single bite can send a human into weeks of immense pain, nausea and vomiting.

Unsurprisingly, the hunt for a reliable antidote has been heavily sought after. Surprisingly, Andis Graudins reveals the most reliable cure is actually from the spiders themselves.

Infact, widow spiders actively produce the antivenom to their own bite to prevent self poisoning. The antivenom can then be extracted and used on infected patients.

Andis injected mice with a combination of venom and antivenom and dripped the concoctions onto muscle fibre from a dead chick.

When injected with venom, the muscle fibre twitched violently. The mice became withdrawn for ten minutes before breathing slowed, body tremors begun and finally hours of hind leg paralysis. With the spiders own antivenom however, all effects were prevented

Andis has shown that the widow spider’s bite can be treated with its own antivenom. However, more research is needed due to a string of severe allergic reactions that have prevented its widespread use across the US.

Suicide for sex in spiders, is love really worth it?

In many spider species the female has been observed to eat the male after mating. Scientist Maydianne Andrade tells a bizarre story of male Redback Spiders deliberately somersaulting themselves into the hairy jaws of the spindly legged, bulbous bodied females.

Why would our tiny male, a close relative of the black widow spider, deliberately allow the female to eat him?

Maydianne explains how he doesn’t eat after reaching maturity and so will only live for a few months. Therefore, he normally only mates once in his lifetime and so will do anything in his power to be the father of her offspring.

By providing the female with a hearty, spider shaped meal, the female is far less likely to mate again. Moreover, whilst being eaten alive, his sperm has double the time to fertilize her eggs.

Counterintuitive behavior has been seen before, such as the giving of gifts, but could there be a more bizarre story than redback spiders acrobatically somersaulting themselves to their own death?

Is the common house fly more fun at a party than you?

The fruit fly, often found buzzing around rotten fruit, has an array of surprising ways to avoid disease (photograph: getty images).

A new study by the University of Bath’s Nick Priest reveals that our humble house pests develop an alcoholic and sexual habit in order to avoid disease.

When you think of the hardworking Drosophila, or fruit fly, you probably think of repeatedly swatting them off your fruit at a picnic. Gathering around faeces and all things rotting, its hard to imagine that fruit flies themselves go to extreme measures to avoid disease.

Most infections in fruit flies are sexually transmitted which presents a dilemma as they want to mate, but are likely to get ill in doing so.

Their reaction? Drink alcohol. Nick found that when a male or female starts courting the other, they will quickly reach for the bottle before having sex. As well as for some dutch courage, alcohol is a natural medicine and so they are less likely to get an infection once drunk.

As well as monitoring their drinking habits, Nick had the dream job of carefully prising apart their stool. He discovered that flies gorge themselves on a high protein diet before sex as once infected, a protein rich diet dramatically increases their life expectancy.

But what if a high protein diet isn’t available? Their answer is to go out in a blaze of glory, having as much sex and as many offspring as possible before they die.

So what have we learned? Well, if you don’t want to get ill, eat steak, have sex and get drunk.