Scientists Look to Microbes to Help Unlock Earth’s Deep Secrets

2016-06-29T10:10:39+00:00 January 9, 2012|
JOIDES Resolution crew members prep a CORK for installation beneath the seafloor. (Image courtesy: Integrated Ocean Drilling Program/U.S. Implementing Organization)

(Click to enlarge) JOIDES Resolution crew members prep a CORK for installation beneath the seafloor. (Image courtesy: Integrated Ocean Drilling Program/U.S. Implementing Organization)

Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, Azores An international team of scientists sailing onboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution recently returned from installing observatories beneath the seafloor in “North Pond” – a remote area in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists hope that data collected from these subseafloor observatories (known as CORKs, or Circulation Obviation Retrofit Kits), along with studies of rock and sediment samples collected during the expedition, will help to shed light on the role that tiny subseafloor microbes play in shaping Earth’s oceans and crust.

Of all the habitable parts of this planet, one ecosystem still remains largely unexplored and unknown to science: the igneous ocean crust. This rocky realm of hard volcanic lava exists beneath ocean sediments that lie at the bottom of much of the world’s oceans. While scientists have estimated that microbial cells living in deep ocean sediments may represent as much as 1/3 of Earth’s total biomass, the habitable portion of the rocky ocean crust may be 10 times again as great.  Yet scientists know very little about this ecosystem. The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) “Mid-Atlantic Ridge Microbiology” expedition set out to change that.

Led by Co-chief scientists Wolfgang Bach (University of Bremen, Germany) and Katrina Edwards (University of Southern California), the expedition began from Bridgetown, Barbados on September 16, 2011 and ended on November 17 in Ponta Delgada in the Azores. During the course of the expedition, two CORKs were successfully installed, and sediment and basalt core samples were also recovered.

CORK observatories are designed to remain in place for up to ten years.  The North Pond subseafloor observatories will permit active experiments to be conducted below the bottom of the ocean for as much as five years after deployment. Scientists from this expedition plan to return to these observatories with the first of many submersible cruises in early 2012.

In the coming months and years, scientists from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge Microbiology expedition will strive to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What is the nature of the microbial communities and what is their role in the alteration of relatively young ocean crust?
  2. Are these communities unique, particularly in comparison with seafloor and sedimentary communities?
  3. Where do microbes in the igneous ocean crust come from (sediment, rock, seawater, other)?

About IODP

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) is an international research program dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the Earth through drilling, coring, and monitoring the subseafloor. The JOIDES Resolution is a scientific research vessel managed by the U.S. Implementing Organization of IODP (USIO). Together, Texas A&M University, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership comprise the USIO.  IODP is supported by two lead agencies: the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. Additional program support comes from the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD), the Australia-New Zealand IODP Consortium (ANZIC), India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences, the People’s Republic of China (Ministry of Science and Technology), and the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources.

Useful Websites:

For more information about IODP Expedition 336 – Mid-Atlantic Ridge Microbiology, visit http://iodp.tamu.edu/scienceops/expeditions/midatlantic_ridge_microbio.html.

For more information about the JOIDES Resolution, visit www.joidesresolution.org.

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For more information about the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, visit www.iodp.org.

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Media Contacts:

Matthew E. Wright
Communications Manager, Scientific Ocean Drilling Programs
Consortium for Ocean Leadership
+1-202-448-1254
mwright@oceanleadership.org

Miyuki Otomo
Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Management International, Inc. (IODP-MI), Tokyo, Japan
motomo@iodp.org

+81-3-6701-3188

Matthew E. Wright
Communications Manager, Scientific Ocean Drilling Programs
Consortium for Ocean Leadership
Office: 202-448-1254
mwright@oceanleadership.org