Duane Moser (l) and South African ventilation engineer Cosolomon Kuhmalo (Photo by Brett Baker)

Two miles underground. For his first assignment as a postdoctoral scholar at Princeton, Duane Moser stepped into a steel cage and dropped two miles into the earth.
    Heat, darkness and air pressure closed in as he plummeted downward at 40 miles per hour, shoulder to shoulder with about 30 miners. Their destination was the bottom of Shaft No. 5 in East Driefontein Gold Mine, 60 miles southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa.
    Moser's quarry was not gold but microbes living deep in the earth, life forms so ancient and so alien from anything seen on the surface that they could lead to a new understanding of the origin of life on earth as well as life on other planets.
    It was the start of what would become a routine of working in the lab of Associate Professor of Geosciences Tullis Onstott, who has been studying microorganisms from deep beneath the earth since 1994. Onstott recently received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation and NASA to establish a permanent research station in a South African gold mine.
    Already Onstott's research has shown signs of microorganisms that eke out an existence in minute cracks within the rock, sealed from oxygen and scorched by radiation and extreme heat.


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