Finding what dwells 450 stories beneath us

South African gold miners are going to the bottom of the deepest man-made holes on earth in pursuit of the precious metal these days. But it turns out there’s more to find at that deep depth.  As Bill Whitaker reports, scientists have found some of the deepest-dwelling organisms on Earth living in ancient water buried deep in the rocks. Whitaker’s story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7:00 p.m. PT on CBS.

The Moab Khotsong mine is one of the deepest in the country. 60 Minutes cameras were given rare permission to film inside the smelter which results in a spectacular pouring of flaming, molten gold into bars. After decades of mining, only the deepest gold remains, as miners have exhausted productive veins closer to the surface.

The extreme depths have captured the attention of scientists seeking what they call “extreme life,” organisms that can live under harsh conditions that no one thought possible. They still require one of life’s most basic necessities: water. “We have found water that’s a billion years old,” says Princeton University geoscientist Tullis Onstott.

To see that water, Whitaker, the scientists and 60 Minutes crew took the longest elevator ride in the world, an estimated 450 stories straight down. At the end of that ride, the journey continues on foot and chairlift even deeper into the mine to a depth equivalent of five of the world’s largest skyscrapers stacked atop each other. Temperatures there can reach 120 degrees.

There in the walls of the mine, highly unusual salt deposits spotted by the team led them to dripping salt water.  “This water is extremely old,” says Onstott. “These rock formations were formed three billion years ago,” he tells Whitaker. He’s excited to learn what testing will reveal about this ancient water.

Onstott and his team already smashed the record books once, finding 5,000-year-old water practically teeming with microorganisms. No one thought animal life could exist so deep in the Earth. Onstott’s partner, Belgian biologist Gaetan Borgonie, is proud of their achievement. “For me, it is big… I had to fight quite a lot of people to be able to do this,” he tells Whitaker. “On a personal level, that was the biggest victory for me.”

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