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NATURAL catastrophes such as asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions or large-scale wildfires would have periodically plunged our planet into abnormal darkness. How did life survive without the sun's life-giving rays during such episodes? With a little help from organisms that can switch to another source of energy while they wait for sunlight to pierce the darkness once more.
To figure out how organisms might have endured periods of so-called "catastrophic darkness", Charles Cockell of the Open University's Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research in Milton Keynes, UK, and his team placed samples of both freshwater and marine microorganisms in darkness for six months - a period similar to what might be expected following a catastrophic event. The samples included phototrophs, which convert sunlight into usable energy, and mixotrophs, which can use sunlight or consume dead organic matter.