The Microbe And The Galaxy

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Loki’s Castle. (New York Times Photo / R.B. Pedersen/Centre for Geobiology/University of Bergen)

Two recent scientific discoveries seem to encapsulate the majesty of the entire universe, its enormity, its infinite complexity and bewildering variety.

In mud found 2 miles below the seabed of the Arctic Ocean with its punishing pressures, depth and darkness, scientists have discovered a miniscule microbe that is revolutionizing our understanding of our own evolution and altering forever the Tree of Life as we know it.

According to Karl Zimmer, writing in The New York Times, genetic scientists working forty years ago expanded what had been thought to be the two major branches of the Tree of Life – bacteria in one and Eukaryotes likes ourselves in another – into three branches, separating out what they called Archae, “lesser-known species of microbes that live in extreme environments such as swamp bottoms and hot springs” or those that live in the human stomach, like E. Coli.

m03-treeoflife03But this latest discovery radically reshapes the Tree yet again, lopping off the third branch established just forty years ago, finding that Lokiarchaeum, as the new microbes have been named, (indeed all Archaea), are not a separate branch but instead an evolutionary link to Eukaryotes like ourselves. Teasing out secrets billions of years old from mud 2 miles beneath the sea, we are learning how life itself evolved and where our own origins as humans lie.

Turning from the fathomless depths of the earth’s lithosphere to the farthest reaches of the infinite Cosmos, other scientists have precisely measured the distance to the oldest and most distant galaxy in the Universe, capturing rays of light that first set sail across the firmament more than 13 billion years ago, almost at the beginning of Time itself.

Galaxy EGS-zs8-1
Galaxy EGS-zs8-1

Training telescopic eyes on one of the brightest and most massive galaxies in the early universe, known today simply as EGS-zs8-1, Dennis Overbye reports in the New York Times that scientists have accurately measured its distance as 30 billion light-years away, much further away now than at its birth due to the constant expansion of the fabric of time and space between us.

How miraculous that, despite all of our petty differences and troubles, and the violence we seem naturally to propagate as a species, we are also capable of finding enlightenment in the furthest stars, and knowledge about ourselves and Life itself in mud lying miles beneath the ocean deep.