100 million-year-old sea microbes are alive and thriving, study finds

Above is a fluorescence microscopy image of 13 million-year-old microbes after separation from subseafloor sediment and sorting.

(CNN)Humans can go without food for about three weeks before the effects of starvation begin to kill them.

Some microbes deep underneath the seafloor have us beat: They can survive with barely any sustenance for more than 100 million years.
These microorganisms live more than 18,000 feet underneath the ocean surface — in an area so deep it's called the subseafloor, below the seafloor.
These sparse microbial populations exist in the slowly accumulating oxygen-filled sediment of the South Pacific Gyre, located within the South Pacific Ocean and bound by the equator, Australia, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and South America, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
    Marine microbes are tiny, single-celled microorganisms that live in the ocean and account for more than 98% of the total mass of organisms living within the ocean.
    The area, part of the Earth's system of rotating ocean currents, doesn't have a lot of food to feed almost anything. It's relatively low in plant nutrients but contains abundant oxygen in the deeper parts of the subseafloor.
    Because the center of the South Pacific Gyre is the site on Earth farthest from all land and productive ocean regions, it's called the "oceanic pole of inaccessibility" and is regarded as Earth's largest oceanic desert.
    There are five major gyres, which are large systems of rotating ocean currents. The ocean churns up various types of currents. Together, these larger and more permanent currents make up the systems of currents known as gyres.
    It's not a spot where most life would thrive, although microbes below the seafloor were known to be present in the South Pacific Gyre sites. Luckily for the microbes, their population wasn't limited by the availability of nitrogen and iron or other dissolved major inorganic nutrients necessary for the growth of living things.

    Life beneath the seabed

    Up until now, there hasn't been much evidence for how these starved microbes function and their survival status in such a food-scarce setting, the study said. That's because before a cell can grow, divide into more cells or keep up the energy needed to complete basic metabolic functions, it has to consume and use carbon.
    So the researchers went looking for sediment samples from approximately 12,140 to 18,700 feet below sea level, during a 2010 Integrated Ocean Drilling Program expedition.
    The sediment was deposited over a period from 13 million to 101.5 million years ago, and it contains small amounts of carbon and other organic material.
    Pictured is a fluorescence microscopy image of the samples of 13 million-year-old sediment before cell purification processes. There were highly abundant sediment particles seen.
    Then within a lab setting the researchers fed these multimillion-year-old samples with carbon and nitrogen substrates — materials from which an organism gets its nourishment — to test whether the cells were capable of feeding and dividing into more cells.
    Most of the nearly 7,000 ancient cells analyzed readily ate up the carbon and nitrogen foods within 68 days of the incubation experiments.
    Researchers incubated 95.4 million-year-old subseafloor sediment samples with carbon and nitrogen substrates (nutrients for the microbes).
    They also rapidly divided and increased their total numbers more than 10,000 times.
    That was a growth rate the researchers didn't expect since there wasn't much to eat, said Yuki Morono, first author of the study and a geomicrobiologist and senior scientist at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.
    Pictured is a fluorescence microscopy image of the samples of 13 million-year-old microbes after cell separation (before cell sorting). Still there were many sediment particles remaining.