Aug. 4, 1997 RUTGERS NEWS Rutgers News Service Ruth Scott, Director 732/932-7084 Rutgers Contact: Harvey Trabb, Extension 615 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Contact: Shelley Lauzon (508) 289-2270 (as of Aug. 4)
IFREMER Contact: Pierre Saliot (France): 33-1-46-48-22-40
July 28, 1997 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE EDITOR'S NOTE: The two Rutgers professors mentioned in this story are due back from their expedition Aug. 1. At that time, Dr. Lutz can be contacted by calling his office at (732) 932-8959, extension 200, and Dr. Vrijenhoek by calling (732) 932-6680, extensions 368 or 356. Images of highlights of the expedition are downloadable from Rutgers' Media Relations Web site at http://uc.rutgers.edu/news.
TO THE POINT: Rutgers scientists take leading role in historic deep-sea explorations
NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- At the same time the Sojourner rover explored the surface of Mars, another scientific expedition -- this one going to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean -- gathered data that may help scientists get a better understanding of the origins of life on Earth and provide clues about how and where life might exist on other planets.
The historic international expedition to the bottom of the sea focused on exploring the unique biology and geology of volcanic vents along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge near the Azores. The expedition, involving two international teams of scientists, found one of the largest hydrothermal vent fields yet discovered in the Atlantic and also made the first joint dive using two submersibles from different countries working together in the deep sea.
One team of scientists was led by two professors affiliated with Rutgers' Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Cook College -- Robert Vrijenhoek and Richard Lutz. The other scientific team was led by Yves Fouquet of IFREMER, the leading oceanographic exploration agency in France. The scientists are from Colombia, France, Great Britain, India, Italy, Panama, Portugal, Russia and the United States.
Vrijenhoek, director of Rutgers' Center for Theoretical and Applied Genetics, and Lutz, director of the Center for Deep-Sea Ecology and Biotechnology at Rutgers, served as co-chief scientists for the team based on the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution's research vessel Atlantis and diving in the submersible Alvin. They cooperated with a multinational European Commission scientific team based on the French government agency IFREMER's research vessel L'Atalante and diving in the submersible Nautile.
Most of the scientists on the Atlantis are marine biologists looking for new species of animals and collecting bacteria that may play a vital role in biomedical research, while most of those on L'Atalante are geologists and geochemists studying hydrothermal fluids and minerals.
During two exploratory dives, scientists on the French submersible, Nautile, discovered "Rainbow," one of the largest volcanic vent fields in the Atlantic, at a depth of 7,700 feet. As prearranged, Alvin joined Nautile the next day to explore the field. The joint Alvin/Nautile dive represents the first time that human-occupied submersibles from two nations worked together on the deep-ocean floor.
Lutz described the rendezvous with Nautile as "a brief encounter in inner space, a tremendous stride toward international cooperation in the exploration of the last great frontier on earth."
Following a second joint dive, the Atlantis headed south so that the team could dive at other vent sites along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The scientists are expected to return from their voyage Aug. 1.
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is part of a 46,000-mile series of undersea mountain ranges that curve around the world along the edges of drifting continental plates, the scientists explained. These edges are sites of frequent volcanic activity where hydrothermal vent fields are created as magma comes out of the Earth's molten interior and forms a crust. Seawater pours into cracks that develop in the crust and is superheated by the magma to temperatures in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit. The water erupts through vents in the crust in a process that forms eerie, hollow, cone-like chimneys as the minerals carried by the water precipitate out.
At these vents, which are more than a mile below the surface, the minerals nourish extensive bacterial colonies. The bacteria are at the bottom of a unique undersea food chain that includes exotic varieties of shrimp, mussels, worms and many previously unknown types of marine life.
The primary goal of the Rutgers-led team of researchers is to use state-of-the-art genetic techniques to study the dispersal and evolutionary relationships of these unusual deep-sea organisms. During the expedition, they prepared tissue samples and DNA extracts from specimens brought to the surface by Alvin. How these organisms disperse from one tiny deep-sea oasis to the next has been a mystery to marine scientists since the discovery of these unusual ecosystems two decades ago.
Genetic approaches can assess the similarity between populations at different localities and construct models of how the organisms disperse and colonize new habitats as they arise. Additionally, the Rutgers team is using molecular techniques to place these unusual organisms on the tree of life.
The environment at these vents is filled with hydrogen sulfide, which would be highly toxic to humans and most other forms of life on Earth. Scientists believe that studies of the marine life that thrives in such an environment could lead to important medical breakthroughs in such areas as cancer prevention and might be valuable in such diverse areas as chemical manufacture and environmental cleanup. The studies could also help scientists devise methods to look for organisms that may live in similar environments on other planets.
Funding for the Rutgers scientists' current expedition is provided by the National Science Foundation and the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology.
Both Lutz, a resident of CLINTON, and Vrijenhoek, who makes his home in WHITEHOUSE STATION, are veterans of many previous dives to the sea floor. In 1992 they became the first American biologists to dive in the Japanese submersible Shinkai 6500 to study hydrothermal vents along the Mariana Trough in the Pacific. The following year Lutz and his colleagues discovered evidence of unprecedented rates of biological and geological growth on the sea floor along the East Pacific Rise 500 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico. The discoveries were hailed as being among the most important ever made under the sea.
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