Centralia, Pennsylvania, was once a prosperous town, largely supported by the coal industry. But in 1962, a trash fire near an abandoned strip mine ignited what remained of the 25 million-ton coal seam beneath the town. Year after year, the fire spread, releasing noxious gas, opening up sinkholes, and ultimately making the town uninhabitable — for humans, at least.
In the absence of humans and in the presence of rapidly heating soil, some interesting microbes have appeared: thermophiles. These microbes, which live at super hot temperatures, have taken a liking to some of the vent zones in Centralia, some of which have heated up to nearly 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) over the course of just a few short decades.
Ashley Shade, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, has been studying the changes in soil temperature in Centralia and the effects on the communities of microbes living there. Her team has been looking into correlations between things like temperature change in the soil and genome sizes of the microbes she’s found. “The idea is if you can keep your cell small, you are going to benefit by not having to spend so much energy just maintaining all of your cell parts, which are kind of getting more wobbly at the higher temperatures,” Shade told The Verge last month.
With Shade’s help, Verge Science took a trip to Centralia, collected some hot soil samples, and attempted to grow thermophiles in our studio (with an incubator — not an underground fire). Check out the video for processes and results.