You know how sometimes a piece of awesome news turns sour because it opens the door for something terrible? That’s what’s happening in South Africa, where the discovery of “worms from Hell” means subterranean life on Mars is a lot more likely. Except that that life would probably be “worms from Hell from Mars”.
The hellish worms in question are nematodes, and they were found living a 1.6km below ground. The worms had previously been found in the deepest depths of the ocean, but never more than 5m underground. Even though it was known to live that deep underwater, finding Halicephalobus mephisto (yes, named for that Mephisto) with its complex nervous, digestive and reproductive systems a mile below a South African gold mine was the equivalent of “finding Moby Dick in Lake Ontario,” according to the researchers from the University of Ghent and Princeton.
The discovery is particularly intriguing to scientists, though, because it means that complex life could survive in conditions that might still exist on formerly-habitable planets like Mars. Carl Pilcher, who directs NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, said it’s “extremely likely” that environments similar to the one where the South African worms were spotted could be found on Mars, or any other planet that once supported life. So presumably, life forms just as complex as the nematode could exist on planets we’ve assumed are long-dead. Which is great, because a Martian “Lord of the Underworld” is exactly what everyone is hoping we find in space. [Washington Post]