Microbes are tiny, sneaky little organisms that can be found absolutely everywhere. Sometimes, I think that statement is repeated so many times, we actually forget how inclusive it is. There are microbes in the air, in our skin, in our stomachs, even in the clouds. The ocean is also home to a great diversity of microbial life that is sometimes taken for granted. Microbes are key players in many life cycles as well as chemical processes that take place in the ocean. As depth increases, the ocean is made up of many layers of water that vary in temperature, nutrient composition and microbial composition. The existence of microbes in all of these layers, means that not only do microbes survive anoxic or oxic conditions in the ocean, but they are also able to survive photic and a-photic, high pressure, cold, hot, eutrophic (many nutrients), oligotrophic (not many nutrients) conditions, among many other variables. Furthermore, microbes can also survive in the bottom of the ocean. At around 36,000 feet deep, microbes are able to survive in the sediment sea floor and below that in the basalt crust that is filled with rocks.
Before coming to Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, I had never thought about microbial life at the bottom of the ocean, much less microbes below the sea floor. Dr. Beth Orcutt’s lab focuses on describing microbial life in this extreme environment. While some scientist focus on describing microbial life in the intestines or the stomach, Dr. Orcutt’s lab joins really cool expeditions to designated drilling sites in the ocean that reveal the secrets that lie inside the basaltic crust. I can only imagine these expeditions to be extremely stressful, not only because of the tedious work of designing instruments that can retrieve basaltic crust samples, but also because these samples are priceless. Each special instrument called CORK has an intricate design on the inside that allows the basalt crust and the sediments to enter and remain inside. These CORKs are deployed and years later, when the disturbance of drilling has been naturally remediated and the environment has reestablished itself, they are retrieved. Inside, there are samples of the different substrates at the bottom of the ocean, which are then divided among the participants. Luckily one of the samples from the sediment layer of the bottom of the ocean was saved just for me!
Throughout the summer, I have been able to develop a project that focuses on the characterization of microbial metabolisms at the bottom of the ocean. Using these rock samples (which are in the form of rock crush) we have created small simulations of the chemical conditions at the bottom of the ocean in this specific drilling site. We have added high concentrations of specific organic or inorganic substrates in order to see the growth preference of microbes in these conditions. Basically, we are feeding the microbes high concentrations of sugars or carbon molecules that are easy to break as well as other compounds that are not supposed to be as easy to break. The exciting part of this project is that we don’t know anything about how these microbes behave, which means that we don’t really have a clear hypothesis of what to expect. Previous studies have indicated and taxonomically described microbial life in this environment, but no one really knows how they interact or which energy sources they prefer. Having rocks at the bottom of the ocean is beneficial to microbes since it’s a source of different compounds that act as food. The accessibility to food makes rocks a preferred substrate for microbial growth. Studying the life of microbes at the oceanic crust might seem like a far-fetched idea (or a crazy idea!), and it might be. There are many factors that come into play when studying the bottom of the ocean and the living components in it. With the current use and involvement of social media, the work and struggles of scientists is highly downplayed or deemed unimportant to the point in which a lifelong project is summed up in a sentence that is repeated many times in different news outlets for two hours and then forgotten for the rest of our lives.
Research and important discoveries, like the fact that microbes live in the subsea floor are more important and more expensive than a one-sentence status on Facebook. Research like the one Dr. Orcutt’s lab has carried out for years is significant not only to our current knowledge of the greatest undescribed surface area in our planet, but also to future directions in discovering life in other planets. If you think about it, reaching the bottom of the ocean is as risky as reaching outer space, which is why advances in the field of marine microbiology that focus on these extreme environments are prototypes to future advances in finding microbial life in other planets.
Sometimes, the media focuses on scientific news that improve our health, innovations in curing cancer or the development of new drugs, but news on the improvement of our ecosystems and the characterization of different environments are just as important and impacting. Next time you see a statement that regards a scientist’s work, take the time to think about all the hard work that goes into proving science right and discovering new things, making old things better and readdressing old theories. A dedicated scientist’s work is never done, and it is, most certainly, never easy, but a genuine scientist’s work is honest, ethical, humble, comprehensible, hard-worked and replicable. And that is exactly the kind of scientist I would one day like to be.
Patricia Montalvo is a University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on hands-on, state-of-the-art methods and technologies.