Bacteria that ‘sense’ Earth’s magnetic field found on deep undersea vents — ScienceDaily | Science & Technology

Magnetotactic bacteria, which can align with the Earth’s magnetic field, have been discovered in a new location. Previously observed on land and in shallow water, analysis of a hydrothermal vent has proven that they can also survive deep under the ocean. The bacteria were able to exist in an environment that was not ideal for their typical needs. Magnetotactic bacteria are of interest not only for the role they play in Earth’s ecosystem, but also in the search for extraterrestrial life. Evidence of their existence can remain in rocks for billions of years. Their magnetic inclinations can also provide a record of how magnetic poles have shifted over time. This new discovery brings hope to researchers that the magnetic bacteria might be found in yet more unexpected locations, on Earth and perhaps even on Mars or beyond.

Magnetotactic bacteria seem to have superpowers. Much like the Marvel Comics character Magneto, they can “sense” the Earth’s magnetic field. These tiny organisms contain magnetosomes, iron crystals wrapped in a membrane, which arrange themselves to align with the Earth’s magnetic field and point the bacteria like a compass. This causes the bacteria to travel in the direction of Earth’s magnetic field lines leading north or south, like trains on a magnetic track. As part of their life cycle, they play an important role in the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other key elements in nature. They have been well studied on land and in shallow water, but rarely in deep water where collecting them can be a challenge.

In September 2012, a team including researchers from the University of Tokyo embarked on a scientific ocean cruise to the southern Mariana Trough in the western Pacific Ocean. Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle named HYPER-DOLPHIN, they collected a “chimney” from a hydrothermal vent field 2,787 meters (almost 4.5 times the height of Tokyo Skytree or more than 6 times the height of the Empire State Building…

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