The Atlantic

Meet the Endoterrestrials

They live thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface. They eat hydrogen and exhale methane. And they may shape our world more profoundly than we can imagine.
Source: Zoë van Dijk

Alexis Templeton remembers January 12, 2014, as the day the water exploded. A sturdy Pyrex bottle, sealed tight and filled with water, burst like a balloon.

Templeton had just guided her Land Cruiser across the bumpy, rock-strewn floor of Wadi Lawayni, a broad, arid valley that cuts through the mountains of Oman. She parked beside a concrete platform that rose from the ground, marking a recently drilled water well. Templeton uncapped the well and lowered a bottle into its murky depths, hoping to collect a sample of water from 850 feet below the surface.

Wadi Lawayni is enclosed by pinnacles of chocolate-brown rock, hard as ceramic yet rounded and sagging like ancient mud-brick ruins. This fragment of the Earth’s interior, roughly the size of West Virginia, was thrust to the surface through an accident of plate tectonics millions of years ago. These exotic rocks—an anomaly on Earth—had lured Templeton to Oman.

Shortly after she hoisted her sample from the well, the bottle ruptured from internal pressure. The water gushed out through the cracks, fizzing like soda. The gas erupting from it was not carbon dioxide, as it is in soft drinks, but hydrogen—a flammable gas.

Templeton is a geobiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and to her, the gas has special significance: “Organisms love hydrogen,” she says. They love to eat it, that is. The hydrogen in the sample was not, itself, evidence of life. But it suggested that the rocks beneath the surface might be the sort of place where life can flourish.

Templeton is one of a growing number of scientists who believe that the Earth’s deep subsurface is brimming with life. By some estimates, this unexplored biosphere may contain anywhere from a tenth to one-half of all living matter on Earth.

Scientists have found microbes living in granite rocks 6,000 feet underground in the Rocky Mountains, and in seafloor sediment buried since the age of the dinosaurs. They have even found tiny animals—worms, shrimp-like arthropods, whiskered rotifers—among the gold deposits of South Africa, 11,000 feet below the surface.

We humans tend to see the world as a solid rock coated with a thin layer of life. But to scientists like Templeton, the planet looks more like a wheel of cheese, one whose thick, leathery rind is perpetually gnawed and fermented by the microbes that inhabit its innards. Those creatures draw nourishment from sources that sound not only inedible, but also intangible: the atomic decay of radioactive elements, the pressure-cooking of rocks as they sink and melt into the Earth’s deep interior—and perhaps even earthquakes.

Templeton had come to Oman in search of a hidden oasis of life. That fizz of hydrogen gas in 2014 was

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