Scientists are scoping out deep sea organisms, and you can, too

A scientific cruise this week will explore life forms on seamounts and ridges off Southern

A scientific cruise this week will explore life forms on seamounts and ridges off Southern California, in order to map out those ecosystems before commercial activities take place there.

Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography will lead the cruise to explore the deep sea habitats that are rich in minerals like phosphorus and manganese. Those regions are potential targets for mining efforts, but may also have unique life forms, including microorganisms with possible pharmaceutical uses.

“We’re trying to understand what the ecosystem services provided by the microbes and the animals are, for people to make decisions about managing the deep ocean,” said Lisa Levin, a biological oceanographer at Scripps. “Some of those (uses) might be mining, some might be fishing, some for conservation and protection. Some may be exploring for genetic resources.”

The cruise, aboard Ocean Exploration Trust E/V Nautilus, will use a remotely operated vehicle, Hercules, to scan the seafloor, and will live-stream those feeds for public viewing.

It will explore the rugged seafloor about 50 to 150 miles offshore of San Diego and Los Angeles, Levin said, searching high points in that topography, about 500 to 1,500 meters below the surface. Levin and others have surveyed deep sea vents, where thermal seeps fuel communities of corals, tubeworms and crustaceans, but they haven’t explored these ridges before.

“We’ll be working mostly on the high points: ridges, banks and escarpments, slopes and seamounts,” she said. “We’ve never been to these places, but some people have been near these places. We know there are sponges and corals and sea anemones and starfish, brittle stars.”

Deep sea mining isn’t happening now, but there have been exploratory efforts in countries, Levin said. Mining ventures have filed claims for phosphorites off the coasts of Namibia, South Africa, Mexico and New Zealand, Levin said. Researchers are also looking at iron manganese crusts that form on seamounts, she said.

“There is no deep sea bed mining anywhere,” she said. “But there’s been a lot of contract exploration for that purpose.”

Before that happens, scientists want to know what’s there, and what its biological value is. Some of the microbes in these places could yield novel substances for possible use in medicine, said Paul Jensen, a professor of microbiology at Scripps and science team member on the cruise.

“These environments have not been studied for their biodiversity,” Jensen said. “When most people think about biodiversity, they think about big things – corals and sponges and fishes. The microbiology aspect of biodiversity often gets overlooked, but is enormously important. The microbes drive a lot of the ecosystem function in most habitats. So just looking at the big things only tells you a very small part of the story. This expedition is one of exploration. Since we don’t know what’s out there, we want to get a baseline sense of that.”

One substance derived from a marine microbe is in Stage 3 trials for glioblastoma, a cancer of the brain or spinal cord, he said. Scientists also believe that marine organisms may provide leads for new antibiotics. Researchers plan to sample the organisms, and then sequence their DNA to determine if they might produce chemicals with medical potential.

“Part of adapting to where they live includes making theses sorts of molecules which allow them to live there,” he said. “Since these habitats are very different from others we’ve studied in the past, our hope is that these microbes will have the potential to make antibiotics that are are different from what we have.”

To gather those samples, they’ll rely on ROV Hercules, a yellow vehicle about the size of a golf cart, equipped with various sensors and cameras. It can collect water and sediment samples, gather rocks and animals, and measure temperature, salinity and oxygen, Levin said.

“It comes with manipulators used to pick up things or take samples,” she said. “It has several video cameras, which allow us to zoom in and get a close look at the bottom.”

The cruise departs Tuesday evening, and viewers can watch Hercules’ travels online at between about 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day through Nov. 6.

“It’s very important that we know what’s out in the deep ocean before we undertake activities that might damage or otherwise effect the life out there,” Levin said. “And we’re really excited to share this with the public.”

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