2008 Research Mission
Dr. Craig Cary, chief scientist, prepares to board the submersible Alvin.
On November 10, 2008, an international research team led by University of
Delaware marine scientist Craig Cary will set sail from
Manzanillo, Mexico, on "Extreme 2008: A Deep-Sea Adventure,"
a National Science Foundation expedition to explore deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortés.
Super-heated water laden with toxic chemicals rockets out of these cracks in Earth's crust, where giant tubeworms, ghost-white crabs, pinkish eel-like fish, and other exotic organisms live, including the tiny bacteria that hold together this strange web of life.
Going to the Depths of Discovery
The research team, which includes scientists and graduate students from the
University of Delaware, University
of Southern California,
J. Craig Venter Institute, University of Colorado, University of North Carolina, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, will live aboard the 274-foot
R/V Atlantis and dive to the depths in the famed submersible Alvin.
“For years, the vents have been explored with little to no attention to viruses and protists,” Dr. Cary says. “Yet because these organisms eat bacteria, they have the most dramatic effect on the bacterial communities that support the vent system. Our research programs are among the first to focus on these remarkable scavengers.”
Exploring the Tiniest Life at the Vents
Dr. Eric Wommack, a University of Delaware associate professor and principal investigator on the expedition, will be deploying specialized equipment to capture marine viruses for analysis in the shipboard lab.
“As a group, viruses are the most abundant biological entities on Earth and contain its largest reservoir of unknown genes,” Wommack says. “We know that bacteria at the deep-sea hydrothermal vents are intimately associated with relatively abundant populations of viruses. Our goal is to explore the wilderness of viral genes existing at the vents.”
Dr. David Caron, professor of biological sciences in the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California, will be studying protozoa, a class of protists that feed on other organisms and may form a crucial bridge between bacteria and animal life.
If Caron is correct, the samples from the deep will show that protozoa feed on bacteria or products of bacterial activity and are, in turn, eaten by larger life forms.
“Protozoa are everywhere and they’re in virtually every environment," Caron says. "They play this intermediate food web role in a number of these environments, and there’s no reason to believe that they aren’t doing the same thing in the vents. It simply hasn’t been looked at to any degree,” Caron said.
Join us in exploring the mysteries of the deep. Surf on and learn more about hydrothermal vents, the neat creatures that inhabit them, the technology that makes this research possible, and the discoveries that scientists are making. Let's dive in!