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An introduction

June 1, 2010

I would like to introduce myself as a new contributor to this blog.  I study deep sea hydrothermal vent microbes.  This might sound incredibly obscure, but I think it is ridiculously cool, and most of the time I can convince myself that it is important too.  My field of study overlaps with the quest to understand the evolution of life on this planet, the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, the race to discover and describe the inhabitants of this planet, and maybe even climate change. There is some evidence suggesting that life on Earth may have evolved in heated environments such as hydrothermal vents. Astrobiologists searching for life on other planets believe that geologic environments similar to hydrothermal vents may exists on planetary bodies such asEuropa and may harbor life. It is now known that there is more biomass (dry weight of living things) in deep sea microbes than on all the continents combined, and we have virtually no idea what impact these organisms have on ocean chemistry.

Hydrothermal Vents are areas of the sea floor where the nature of the rock allows water in the interstices of the ocean crust heated by Earth’s internal fire to spew into the ocean and interact with the colder rocks and water that it encounters.  The water that comes in contact with the magma becomes super-heated and is therefore able to dissolve lots of minerals that water doesn’t otherwise contain.  Heat adds energy to a system that causes chemical reactions to speed up, and so many reactions happen in the presence of hot water that wouldn’t be noticeable otherwise.  These hydrothermal fluids can be up to 350oC (662oF), which means that they would be gas (water vapor) under the pressures that we are used to on Earth’s surface.  However, pressures at the sea floor bottom can be up to 345 times what they are at sea level, so these liquids remain just that.  As soon as the heated fluid comes in contact with cold seawater (2oC, 36oF), the dissolved minerals immediately crystallize out of solution and form magnificent solid rock chimney-like structures that are given names like HulkGiraffe, or Pinocchio by the scientists who discover them.

Deep sea environments are very challenging to study because we can’t see them.  The Hubble space telescope can see galaxies 15 billion light years away, but satellites cannot take pictures of the bottom of the ocean because the water itself acts a barrier to light beyond 50 meters.  We have ways of sensing the topography of the ocean floor using satellites and sonar aboard ships, but we cannot see what’s there without sending down some type of camera with its own light source.  So while there are many snapshots of the deep, scientists have to make educated guesses about what lies between. We have more detailed maps of the surfaces of the Moon and Mars than we do of the sea floor.  I have described the challenges of studying the mysterious ocean hereThis blog is another great resource for everything deep.

In 1977 geologists made a discovery that changed the way we think about life on this planet.  During a geologic research cruise to find places on the sea floor where Earth’s crust was pulling apart geologists found unbelievable assemblages of species.  In this environment, thought to be devoid of life due to the lack of sunlight, they found diversity and richness that rivaled the tropical rain forests.  This was contradictory to everything scientists thought they understood about the deep sea.  There had been previous indications of life in these deep wastelands, but no one expected that a significant amount of life could thrive in the deep.  It had been assumed that there simply couldn’t be enough organic matter drifting down from above to support dense communities. A fundamentally new process for energy generation had to exist to allow these communities to flourish.  Geology was the key!  These perplexing organisms were tapping into energy from inside the earth, rather than 93 million miles away from it, through a process called chemosynthesis (as opposed to photosynthesis) that was completely unknown for the first 10,000 years of human civilization.   My expanded description of this incredible discovery can be found here.

My research focuses on the fundamental unanswered questions of which microbes are living in the vent chimneys, patterns in their distribution, and what, chemically, are they doing.  Do their metabolisms affect the global carbon cycle?  Do the ecological patterns of species richness and distribution mirror the well-established ecological patterns of larger organisms?  What allows these organisms to live at higher temperatures than most other organisms on the planet?  These are some of the questions that I hope my research will help answer one day.  I would like to introduce myself as a new contributor to this blog. I study deep sea hydrothermal vent microbes.  This might sound incredibly obscure, but I think it is ridiculously cool, and most of the time I can convince myself that it is important too.  My field of study overlaps with the quest to understand the evolution of life on this planet, the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, the race to discover and describe the inhabitants of this planet, and maybe even climate change. There is some evidence suggesting that life on Earth may have evolved in heated environments such as hydrothermal vents. Astrobiologists searching for life on other planets believe that geologic environments similar to hydrothermal vents may exists on planetary bodies such as Europa and may harbor life. It is now known that there is more biomass (dry weight of living things) in deep sea microbes than on all the continents combined, and we have virtually no idea what impact these organisms have on ocean chemistry.

Hydrothermal Vents are areas of the sea floor where the nature of the rock allows water in the interstices of the ocean crust heated by Earth’s internal fire to spew into the ocean and interact with the colder rocks and water that it encounters.  The water that comes in contact with the magma becomes super-heated and is therefore able to dissolve lots of minerals that water doesn’t otherwise contain.  Heat adds energy to a system that causes chemical reactions to speed up, and so many reactions happen in the presence of hot water that wouldn’t be noticeable otherwise.  These hydrothermal fluids can be up to 350oC (662oF), which means that they would be gas (water vapor) under the pressures that we are used to on Earth’s surface.  However, pressures at the sea floor bottom can be up to 345 times what they are at sea level, so these liquids remain just that.  As soon as the heated fluid comes in contact with cold seawater (2oC, 36oF), the dissolved minerals immediately crystallize out of solution and form magnificent solid rock chimney-like structures that are given names likeHulkGiraffe, or Pinocchio by the scientists who discover them.

Deep sea environments are very challenging to study because we can’t see them.  The Hubble space telescope can see galaxies 15 billion light years away, but satellites cannot take pictures of the bottom of the ocean because the water itself acts a barrier to light beyond 50 meters.  We have ways of sensing the topography of the ocean floor using satellites and sonar aboard ships, but we cannot see what’s there without sending down some type of camera with its own light source.  So while there are many snapshots of the deep, scientists have to make educated guesses about what lies between. We have more detailed maps of the surfaces of the Moon and Mars than we do of the sea floor.  I have described the challenges of studying the mysterious ocean hereThis blog is another great resource for everything deep.

In 1977 geologists made a discovery that changed the way we think about life on this planet.  During a geologic research cruise to find places on the sea floor where Earth’s crust was pulling apart geologists found unbelievable assemblages of species.  In this environment, thought to be devoid of life due to the lack of sunlight, they found diversity and richness that rivaled the tropical rain forests.  This was contradictory to everything scientists thought they understood about the deep sea.  There had been previous indications of life in these deep wastelands, but no one expected that a significant amount of life could thrive in the deep.  It had been assumed that there simply couldn’t be enough organic matter drifting down from above to support dense communities. A fundamentally new process for energy generation had to exist to allow these communities to flourish.  Geology was the key!  These perplexing organisms were tapping into energy from inside the earth, rather than 93 million miles away from it, through a process called chemosynthesis (as opposed to photosynthesis) that was completely unknown for the first 10,000 years of human civilization.   My expanded description of this incredible discovery can be found here.

My research focuses on the fundamental unanswered questions of which microbes are living in the vent chimneys, patterns in their distribution, and what, chemically, are they doing.  Do their metabolisms affect the global carbon cycle?  Do the ecological patterns of species richness and distribution mirror the well-established ecological patterns of larger organisms?  What allows these organisms to live at higher temperatures than most other organisms on the planet?  These are some of the questions that I hope my research will help answer one day.

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