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Cyanobacteria are ecologically versatile microorganisms inhabiting most environments, ranging from marine systems to arid deserts. Although they possess several pathways for light-independent energy generation, until now their ecological range appeared to be restricted to environments with at least occasional exposure to sunlight. Here we present molecular, microscopic, and metagenomic evidence that cyanobacteria predominate in deep subsurface rock samples from the Iberian Pyrite Belt Mars analog (southwestern Spain). Metagenomics showed the potential for a hydrogen-based lithoautotrophic cyanobacterial metabolism. Collectively, our results suggest that they may play an important role as primary producers within the deep-Earth biosphere. Our description of this previously unknown ecological niche for cyanobacteria paves the way for models on their origin and evolution, as well as on their potential presence in current or primitive biospheres in other planetary bodies, and on the extant, primitive, and putative extraterrestrial biospheres.

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Thomas Gold was a scientific jack of all trades being involved in physics, cosmology and geochemistry, the latter of interest to us here. He thought petroleum and other hydrocarbons were actually produced by micro-organisms below the surface of the earth, providing...