"Into the Deep," Bob
Ballard regales Alan with stories of his voyages to the
bottom of the sea. In 1977, Ballard was exploring the Galapagos
Rift in the Pacific Ocean with the submersible ALVIN when
he made one of the most important discoveries in modern biology
hydrothermal vent communities.
Galapagos vents were found to support an astonishing array
of animal life, in spite of the enormous pressure, total darkness
and magma-heated solutions churning up from these fissures
in the seafloor. What did these animals eat? Biologists puzzled
over this mystery until water samples revealed the presence
microbes, bacteria that transform chemicals discharged from
the vent into usable energy. These bacteria then serve as
the bottom of the food chain for the rest of the vent community,
just as photosynthetic plants do on the sunlit surface.
Senior Researcher in the Department of Biology, Carl
O. Wirsen (above/right) has worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, MA since 1968. A microbiologist
specializing in the physiology and ecology of marine bacteria,
Wirsen became intrigued by deep-sea bacteria in 1968, after
the submersible ALVIN broke free from its support cables and
sank, unmanned, in 5,000 feet of water. When the craft was
recovered, biologists were struck by the conditions inside
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the sub was recovered after ten months on the bottom, the
seawater soaked lunches were in a remarkable state of preservation.
Bologna sandwiches were not spoiled and the meat was still
pink. The apples tasted salty, but were still quite fresh.
All this left us scratching our heads. It was a perfect experiment.
The lunches had just been sitting in an open leather satchel
inside the sub, protected from all the little scavenging animals,
but free for microbes to act. We jokingly asked if we could
sink another submersible and maybe repeat the experiment but
the Navy wasn't too thrilled about that!
tube worms thrive in the vent environment, reaching
sizes up to four feet long.
accident got me involved with studying the microbes of the
deep sea, which is the largest biosphere on Earth, comprising
80 percent of the living space on Earth. What microorganisms
are there? How are they reacting/adapting to pressure? To
the near freezing temperature? What are the factors that limit
life? I consider myself a classical microbiologist. I like
to isolate and culture microorganisms, study their physiology
and look at how environmental factors affect them. With this
approach, we can answer a lot of questions. I very much like
the hands-on part of doing research, so I jumped at that opportunity
to work at Woods Hole and I've been here almost 34 years now.
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Photos: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI)