When scientists discovered a worm deep in an aquifer one mile underground worm genome . They hailed it as the discovery of the deepest living animal ever found.
Now researchers, have sequenced the genome of the unique animal, referred to as the underground worm genome, for its ability to survive in harsh, subsurface conditions.
The Devil Worm’s genome provides clues to how an organism adapts to lethal environmental conditions.
Future research into how it evolved could help humans learn lessons for how to adapt to a warming climate.
In 2008, discovered the microscopic Devil Worm while investigating subterrestrial bacterial communities inactive gold mines in South Africa.
A team stunned to discover the worm, a complex, multicellular animal thriving in an environment thought only livable for microbes, with high temperatures, little oxygen and high amounts of methane.
Researchers named the worm Halicephalobus Mephisto, in honor of Mephistopheles, a subterranean demon from the medieval German legend Faust.
The Devil Worm is the first subterrestrial animal to have its genome sequenced.
The genome offers evidence of how life can exist below the Earth’s surface and opens up a new way of understanding how life can survive beyond Earth.
The Devil Worm can’t run away; it’s underground. It has no choice but to adapt or die. We propose that when an animal cannot escape intense heat, it starts making more copies of these two genes to survive.
By scanning other genomes, Bracht identified other cases where the same two gene families, Hsp70 and AIG1, expanded.
The animals he identified are bivalves, a group of mollusks including clams, oysters, and mussels. They are heat-adapted like the Devil Worm.
This suggests that the pattern identified in the Devil Worm may extend more generally to organisms unable to escape environmental heat.
A decade ago, the Devil Worm was unknown and living below the Earth’s surface. Now it’s a subject of study in science laboratories.
NASA supports the research of the Devil Worm for what it can teach scientists about the search for life beyond Earth.
Part of this work entails looking for ‘biosignatures’ of life stable chemical clues left behind by living things.
They focus on a ubiquitous biosignature of organic life genomic DNA obtained from an animal that has adapted to an environment once considered uninhabitable to complex life.
Nematodes are well suited to studies of evolutionary adaptation, Bracht said. They have adapted to a diverse set of environments and are among the most abundant animals on earth.
Future work involving the Devil Worm in Bracht’s lab will pinpoint Hsp70’s function, such as inactivating the gene to test its response to heat stress.
Other work could involve gene-transfer studies in C.elegans, a type of heat-intolerant microscopic roundworm, to see if it becomes heat-resilient.