We find ourselves, somehow, at the end of summer. The really hot bit; the stretch where it feels like it’s just one long heat wave from here until fall. What’s worse, no one knows how we got here, because time lost all meaning ca. March, when the whiplash-inducing news cycle really picked up. If you have spent the past few months wondering how in the hell you were supposed to focus long enough to complete a single task, given…everything; if you now find that it takes about five minutes outside for you to sweat out a whole day’s worth of energy, well, perhaps this reminder will come as a relief: sometimes it’s okay to do less. In fact, sometimes all that’s needed is the absolute least.
For evidence, we look to the very bottom of the ocean, where some very inspirational organisms — microbial cells, to be exact — lead an unbothered existence, nestled comfortably in the sediments under the seafloor. According to a new study, published in ScienceAdvances, these cells use an astonishingly small amount of energy; an output so small, it calls “into question the power limit to life.”
That these intensely inactive cells exist is not news. Per Vice, scientists discovered this life form dwelling deep (kilometers-deep, in some instances) beneath the ocean’s floor decades ago, while drilling core samples. But now, researchers have analyzed that data to determine how much energy these cells need, based on the amount of sea-borne carbon they digest. The microbes live in “a very energy-limiting environment,” James Bradley, the study’s lead author and an environmental scientist at Queen Mary University of London, told Vice. “It’s a system cut off from light, and it relies on the input of this sinking organic material onto the seafloor, and then its eventual burial and deposition.”
Yet even under these constraints, this habitat hosts “a vast amount of microbial life,” Bradley said. “The number of cells that are contained in global subseafloor sediments is equivalent to the number of cells in all of Earth’s soils, or all of Earth’s global ocean.” So how are they managing to thrive down there? By using an inconceivably small amount of energy — by the researchers’ calculations, about 50 quintillion (read: 50,000,000,000,000,000,000) times less energy than humans use.
“It looks like the majority of these organisms are living at energy regimes that are below what we thought was even capable of maintenance — just staying alive,” Bradley says. Good for them, but also good for you. I bet you’re feeling very powerful by comparison.