Volcanic Life-Sources Discovered Deep in Southern Ocean: A Preview of ET Life?

0 New sources of extreme life forms have been discovered by scientists aboard the Royal Research Ship James Cook. The expedition has located a new set of deep-sea volcanic vents in the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. The fourth discovery made by the research team in three years, which suggests that deep-sea vents may be more common in our oceans than previously thought.

Using an underwater camera system, the researchers saw slender mineral spires three meters tall, with shimmering hot water at a depth of 520 meters gushing from their peaks, and gossamer-like white mats of bacteria coating their sides. The vents are in a newly-discovered seafloor crater close to the South Sandwich Islands, a remote group of islands around 500 kilometres south-east of South Georgia.

In the three decades since scientists first encountered vents in the Pacific, around 250 have been discovered worldwide. Most have been found on a chain of undersea volcanoes called the mid-ocean ridge, however, and very few are known in the Antarctic.

"We're finding deep-sea vents more rapidly than ever before," says expedition leader Professor Paul Tyler of the University of Southampton's School of Ocean and Earth Science, which is based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. "And we're finding some in places other than at mid-ocean ridges, where most have been seen before."

20080110_smokersmall By studying the new vents, the team hope to understand more about the distribution and evolution of life in the deep ocean, the role that deep-sea vents play in controlling the chemistry of the oceans, and the diversity of microbes that thrive in different conditions beneath the waves.

In an earlier 2010 Antarctic expedition, researchers exploring 'Adventure Caldera', a crater-like hole in the seafloor three kilometers across and 750 meters deep at its deepest point, discovered a series of new vents. Despite its size, Adventure Caldera was only discovered last year by geophysicists from the British Antarctic Survey.

The new vents are the fourth set to be discovered around Antarctica in three expeditions since 2009. Their discovery is part of a project funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which involves researchers from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, the Universities of Southampton, Newcastle, Oxford, Bristol and Leeds, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US.

"The age of discovery is not over," said Jesse Ausubel, a program manager at the U.S. Sloan Foundation. Finds "are provocative for NASA and for people who are interested in life in places other than Earth."

Among discoveries in 2006 were shrimps, clams and bacteria living by the searing 407C vent on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean north of Ascension Island, the hottest sea vent ever documented and more than hot enough to melt lead.

"This is the most extreme environment and there is plenty of life around it," said Chris German, of Britain's Southampton Oceanography Center and a leader of the Atlantic survey.

He said one big puzzle was how creatures coped with shifts in temperatures — water on the seabed at 3,000 meters (9,842 ft) was just 2C yet many creatures withstood near-boiling temperatures of up to 80C from the thermal vent.

Researchers had not yet probed how hardy the microbes nearest the hottest part of the vent were — a type of bacteria called "Strain 121" found in the Pacific in 2003 holds the record by being able to withstand temperatures of 121 Celsius. Another expedition found crustaceans, jellyfish and single-celled animals living in darkness in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica under ice 700 meters thick and 200 km (125 miles) from open water. 

"You can think of it as a cave, one of the remotest caves on earth," Ausubel said of findings by a robot camera."Wherever we've gone on earth we've continued to find life," German said. He said recent discoveries could be encouraging for the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

Astronomers speculate that Jupiter's moon Europa could hide an ocean beneath its frozen surface and Ausubel noted life has been found on Earth beside subsea methane seeps — Saturn's moon Titan also has methane. And NASA said last week it had found signs of liquid water on Mars.

Among other 2006 finds by the census, due for completion in 2010, was a "Jurassic shrimp" in the Coral Sea east of Australia and previously thought extinct 50 million years ago.

Casey Kazan via Christian Science Monitor and National Oceanography Centre (UK)


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