Friday 14 October 2011

Fire Ice Worm

Anyone here ever passed wind? I know, I know, once at Christmas in the early 80s but you decided not to do it ever again. Still, people have bacteria in their guts that help them digest food. Some people, though not all, have bacteria that release methane. Ruminants have loads of them, and it all helps in creating a most undesirable side-effect - an almighty stink.

Now, methane gas can sometimes rise up from within the Earth's crust. If it pops up in water that's cold enough and of high enough pressure, the water forms a crystal that traps the methane within it. We now have methane clathrate, also known as fire ice. Why fire ice? Because it looks like ice and it can be set on fire!

But some creatures have found other ways of liberating this energy without just flaming it up. There are bacteria that can eat this fire ice, getting their energy from the methane. And, deep beneath the waves, there is a worm that eats this bacteria.

Image: MacDonald, Texas A&M
It's called Hesiocaeca methanicola. A small, pink polycheate worm, just 2 to 4 cm (1 or 2 inches) long. Thousands of them infest bulging mounds of fire ice, skating across the surface and burrowing beneath it.

Not much is known about them, but they can survive some 4 days with almost no oxygen at all. Larvae are thrown into the currents and have about 3 weeks to find food before they die. It's a tough world down there!

One interesting thing is that this methane clathrate was once thought to exist only in the cold of the outer Solar System. We now know that it exists on Earth and can support not only bacteria, but multicellular organisms too. Space worms, anyone?


TexWisGirl said...

for some reason, that 2nd image just geeks me out. eek!

Joseph JG said...

I know what you mean. Spiky worms in some strange, orange mass atop some weird, volcanoey rock. It's definitely ticking boxes on the Nasty List, even if it's difficult to pin down exactly which ones.

Crunchy said...

"Well, son, you're 5 years old now, time to start living on your own. I'm going to leave you on the side of the interstate here. Oh, and remember, you're deathly allergic to all food except for authentic xocolatl and fresh soursop fruit. Good luck! Don't call!"

Bill said...

Sounds like useful knowledge with all the methane being released into the atmosphere in tundra regions as they warm up. Perhaps we can figure out a way of using these to digest some of the methane before its released.

Joseph JG said...

@Crunchy: You mustn't keep your parenting strategies to yourself. Get 'em out there and spread the glorious word of soursop.

@Bill: Yeh, perhaps. They're wondering what kind of effect these creatures have down there. I love it when a worm gets time in the spotlight!