Searching for life on the seafloor

Posted: 12/29/2011 in all marine news

Jill McDermott

Smaller than a fingernail, like bits of downy red feathers, baby tubeworms cling to a vertical wall towering alongside the submersible Alvin 2,500 meters beneath the sea in 2006.

Repaved with fresh rock during an eruption at the East Pacific Rise, the walls mark the edge of the caldera of a deep-sea volcano.

We three—pilot Pat Hickey, biologist Timothy Shank, and I—are the first human observers of these new colonizers, which are still so young they don’t yet have tubes to protect them from hungry crabs.

Fresh rock on the seafloor is typically a glassy, iridescent black color, but these rocks are coated with a thick layer of white microbes.

The key to all this new life is the warm, shimmering, chemical-rich water bathing them.

Pressing my face to the 4.5-inch-round window, I have just encountered my first black smoker hydrothermal vent, where hot fluids, laden with chemicals and minerals, spew like smoke from chimney-like rock formations.

We have sampled fluids from the vent, collected rocks and animals around it, and seen how the gills of baby tubeworms flutter in the current.

I grew up far from the ocean, on the Canadian border in Maine, but my interest in hydrothermal chemistry was sparked when I met Karen Von Damm, a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Karen was an MIT/WHOI Joint Program graduate student in the early 1980s.

She wrote her Ph.D. dis­sertation on the chemistry of the fluids gushing from the first deep-sea black smoker hydrothermal vents sampled on a mid-ocean ridge.

Karen, who died in 2008, devoted her life to understanding how vent fluids acquire their chemical composition, and how those chemicals support biological communities and affect the ocean.

I landed in Alvin thanks to Karen’s dedication to mentoring young scientists, coupled with her firm belief in the value of seeing a hydrothermal system firsthand.

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