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Mission to Inner Space

 

Mission to Inner Space

A mile and a half below the surface, Alvin creaks softly as it approaches the ocean floor off the coast of Oregon. On board is biology professor Anna-Louise Reysenbach, who studies organisms that live in one of Earth's most extreme environments: deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Reysenbach uses the sub to study microbes that could advance medical and nano technology and hold the key to life's origins. "You don't know what to expect," Reysenbach says. â"It's almost like going to Mars or the moon."

These vents consist of super-heated water (as hot as 750°F) that spews from cracks in the ocean floor, laced with chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide, iron, and carbon dioxide. When the hot water hits the much colder water at the bottom of the sea, the minerals precipitate out in a cloud of black smoke and then harden into porous rock formations. The bacteria and other microscopic life forms that Reysenbach studies live on these rocks, forming the base of a food chain built on geochemical energy rather than the energy of the sun. The microbes, Reysenbach says, are nature's chemists. "They're able to break down almost anything," she says.

To learn more, Reysenbach brings samples back from the inhospitable environments where the microbes live using the submarine Alvin, which is capable of diving up to 4,500 meters. Back in the lab, Reysenbach and her team reproduce the temperature of the microbes' native habitat so they can study the organisms and their genetic makeup.