Middle- and high-school students will be able to ask about smelly, foot-long clams, blind tubeworms, ghostly white crabs and other deep-sea denizens Jan. 13, when University of Delaware scientist Craig Cary calls classrooms from the seafloor.
The historic call--set to take place at 1:30 p.m. U.S. Eastern Standard Time--will take selected students on a "virtual field trip" beneath the Sea of Cortés, as part of the first deep-sea dive of the new century aboard the submersible, Alvin.
If all goes well, web surfers also may be able to access the periodic deep-sea Internet transmissions, to be sent during eight separate dives, from Jan. 13 through Jan. 20. (Check the site, http://www.ocean.udel.edu/deepsea , when it goes live.)
Investigating "extreme" organisms such as weird, hydrothermal vent dwellers, uncovering clues about the seafloor's formation and testing new scientific equipment are all on the agenda for Extreme 2000. The educational component of the expedition is being cosponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), WHYY-TV of Delaware and the UD College of Marine Studies.
Perhaps most importantly, students will discover the wonders of the underwater frontier, says Cary, an associate professor at UD and chief scientist on the expedition.
"Our research ultimately may help us better understand life on this planet," Cary explains. "It's likely that life originated in high-temperature environments, and so we may find relatives of our early ancestral life in hydrothermal vents deep beneath the ocean's surface."
Such findings could launch new discoveries about other planets, too, Cary says. Some scientists believe, for example, that water is trapped beneath the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. If so, the water may be kept in a liquid state by hydrothermal vents, which could harbor ancient microbes, similar to those on Earth.
"We learn something new every time we make a deep-sea dive," Cary says. "By taking students on a virtual field trip to the seafloor, we hope to introduce them to the adventures awaiting those who pursue scientific discovery."
Beginning Jan. 13, Cary and other team members, including UD chemist George W. Luther III and microbiologist Anna-Louise Reysenbach of Portland State University, will take turns boarding Alvin, a three-person submersible operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Each day, they will descend for about an hour and a half to reach the ocean's floor, in the Sea of Cortés, located at the center of the Gulf of California.
From Alvin's cold sphere, the scientists will collect samples of toxic chemicals released by hydrothermal vents--part of their quest to understand early life, through the NSF's Life in Extreme Environment (LExEn) program. They also will gather organisms, rocks and minerals for analysis back in their laboratories. In the process, the scientists will use special instruments, such as deep-sea sensors invented by Luther, a professor of marine studies.
If Internet transmissions work as expected, Cary says, they could give students at participating schools a first-ever look at such oddities as lipstick-like tubeworms, which depend on bacteria for their survival. Recently, for example, Cary confirmed that a deep-sea dweller in the Pacific Ocean, the Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana), is the world's most heat-tolerant animal (Nature, Feb. 5, 1998). It's covered by bacteria that may harbor enzymes useful for processing drugs and food, making paper or dislodging oil inside wells.
Such extremophiles thrive in a strange and demanding environment, surviving chemicals, water temperatures exceeding 235 degrees Fahrenheit (113 Celsius) and 250 times greater atmospheric pressure, compared with land conditions. Creatures such as tubeworms with no mouth, eyes or stomach depend on a symbiotic relationship with billions of heat-hardy bacteria of interest to the Extreme 2000 scientists.
The team also hopes to gain a better understanding of how and where hydrothermal vents occur on the seafloor, and how shifts in the Earth's tectonic plates may allow seawater and magma to seep through cracks. Water will be sampled by an apparatus called the Sipper, which can be extended from Alvin.
"The seafloor is like a great wilderness, waiting to be explored," Cary points out. "It's an extraordinary learning tool, and we also expect it to yield a great deal of practical information, by opening a window onto the origins of our world."
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