The Western Ghats at Matheran in Maharashtra: microbes in Deccan Traps

New Delhi: A team of microbiologists, biotechnologists and geologists from IIT-Kharagpur have dug out microorganisms as old as 2.5 billion years 3 km underneath the earth surface at a place in the Deccan peninsula. The period when these microbes were living is when the planet witnessed the Great Oxidation Event, which triggered life on earth that is 4.5 billion years old.

After running into some faint signs of life in the Deccan region, the IIT-Kharagpur team undertook a four-year long expedition and research to reach the conclusion that life existed in the landmass that is now India as early as life in the form of unicellular organisms built by amino acids had started anywhere on earth.

The December edition of Nature’s online, open-access journal Scientific Reports: Nature reported the finding.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences, excited by the finding, has sought a detailed report from the IIT team led by biotechnologist Pinaki Sar. The ministry, after the Narendra Modi government assumed office, had asked the Kharagpur branch of IIT to join a team of geologists in the Karar village of Koyna, Maharashtra, who were studying the earthquake of 1964.

This scientific push by the Modi government is interesting in the backdrop of several ministers including the prime minister asserting that different instances of modern science could be traced back to the era of the Ramayana or Mahabharata — the eras that, according to the calculation of yugas by Vishnu Purana, are so old that no life could have existed on earth in those periods.

However, a detailed exposition by the former editor of Sirf News, Surajit Dasgupta, would show that life on the Indian part of earth has been continuous, with civilisation dating back to a period 8,000 years ago in Varanasi, which again was discovered by a team of IIT-Kharagpur.

Speaking about the finding in the western part of the Deccan peninsula, Sar told a newspaper, “The depths of these ancient rocks do not have oxygen, water, organics or light to support life. The rock cores we dug out from three boreholes were investigated. We have been able to prove microbial existence. It is obvious they fought extreme conditions to stay alive and multiply.”

Research scholar Avishek Dutta shared the details of the exploration, saying, “We have been able to find 5 μg of microbes in every gram of the crust we scooped out.”

It is to be noted that the initial phase of microbes on earth was a period of alternate cooling and heating of the earth surface, as lava erupted from the volcanoes heating the crust followed by a prolonged period of no sunlight because of the formation of thick clouds caused by the eruptions, which caused a cooling effect.

The Deccan Traps are where the oldest rocks in the country are to be found, too. These are igneous rocks that are hardly permeable. Between volcanic eruptions, the life of microbes thrived in the region. This happened also in Witwatersrand in South Africa, Fennoscandian Shield in Finland and Colorado River Basin in the United States.

Whether the microbes found in India’s Deccan Traps are still alive has not been ascertained yet. “We cannot immediately confirm that. These microbes harvested the geogenic energy of the earth by oxidising hydrogen and carbon dioxide derived from the inner core of the crust. They are extremely intelligent bacteria and they could teach us a lesson or two about how carbon and inorganic sources can be used for survival,” said Sar explaining the special kind of microbes called extremophiles.