But the real proof of the pudding came with DNA analysis that revealed the presence of bacteria that is quite different from your run-of-the-mill microbes. In fact, the bacteria found beneath Hawaii is similar to bacteria collected by Fisk and his colleagues from many other areas that appear very inhospitable to life.
One of the researchers, Carol Di Meo-Savoie of the Medical University of South Carolina, has examined rocks collected from the ocean floor, two to three miles below sea level, and her work suggests that the rock-eating microbes are very different from those found in the sea water where the rocks were collected.
"She figured out what was on the exterior of the rock, what was in the sea water, and what was inside the rock, and it was really clear that the bacteria she got out of the rock was different" from the other bacteria, Fisk says.
In fact, it more closely resembles a totally different type of microorganisms called "archaebacteria," Fisk says. Once thought to be ancient bacteria, archaebacteria is now believed to be a distinctly different form of life, joining bacteria and plants and animals in the kingdom of life.
The discovery raises many questions, including the precise diet that these organisms live on. Fisk says it's possible they just eat the rock, gaining the chemicals, like iron, to oxidize and turn into energy. The best way to find out, he says, is to go back to the hole and collect more DNA and immediately dump it into a culture and see if it survives.
If it does, the researchers should be able to figure out its diet by identifying the nutrients that make it grow.
That could be helpful, he says, in the effort to identify the areas of other worlds where we would best look for life.