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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Deep, Deep Under the Sea

Air Date: Week of

Scientist Bob Vrijenhoek (VRY-en-hook) speaks to host Steve Curwood from the deck of the research vessel Atlantis, where he and other scientists are traveling more than a mile beneath the ocean to study organisms which live in the most extreme environments known.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On the bottom of the ocean floor, a mile and a half below the Earth's surface, there's a place where no natural light penetrates. Where the temperature can rise above 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Where oxygen is scarce and the water pressure pushes 4,000 pounds per square inch. It is a place where conditions are extreme. In one such setting along hydrothermal vents off the Pacific coast of Chile, scientists in a small submarine are studying life thriving in this harsh environment. We used a satellite phone to reach the expedition's vessel, the Atlantis, and its chief scientist, Bob Vrienhoeck. He described for us the landscape at the bottom of the world.

VRIENHOECK: We're looking specifically at deep sea hydrothermal springs that, if you could imagine, are very, very much like Yellowstone geysers and springs, but on the bottom of the ocean. And instead of spewing geysers hundreds of feet into the air, they spew superheated water and steam right into the sea water. And it's that interface between superheated water at high pressures, basically a pressure-cooker, and cold surrounding sea water, that creates all of the interesting phenomena that geologists, chemists, and biologists are so interested in studying.

CURWOOD: How hot is hot? You say it's superheated.

VRIENHOECK: We measured temperatures in excess of 407 degrees Centigrade. Now 100 degrees Centigrade is boiling point for water, so (laughs) this was extremely hot water that would instantly broil just about anything that came into contact with it.

CURWOOD: So how does anything survive?

VRIENHOECK: Well, the organisms don't live in that superheated water. They might live, we find organisms such as some of the small worms, that may live in water close to 100 degrees Centigrade. And how they survive in that is still a mystery to us.

CURWOOD: Now, how do you get down there, Bob?

VRIENHOECK: We use a manned submersible called Alvin. It holds 3 people. It's a titanium ball about 6 and a half feet in diameter, and you're in there with 2 other people, a pilot and another scientist, and a lot of computer and navigation equipment and life support systems.

CURWOOD: I guess you really have to like each other, huh?

VRIENHOECK: You would certainly hope so (laughs) because you're going to spend 9 hours on the bottom of the ocean together (laughs). The ball is surrounded by a superstructure that contains a lot of ballast material (laughs) so you can come back up. That is the desire, to come back up. It's easy to sink. Coming back up is the difficult part. And that's when our work really begins, on the surface of the ship. There are 24 scientists who may spend the rest of the evening, if not all night, basically processing these biological materials for subsequent work.

CURWOOD: So, what exactly are you looking for and these 24 guys?

VRIENHOECK: We're interested in everything from bacteria to clams and mussels. The common mussel that you eat, for instance, you buy at the supermarket, the blue mussel, is typically one and a half to 2 or 3 inches in length. These mussels can be a foot long and weigh a couple of pounds. The clams that we see in the vicinity are bigger than your shoe in most cases, and in fact bigger than a number 12 shoe (laughs) if that's what you wear.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that you're sponsored in part by the National Cancer Institute. What do you suspect might help in the fight against cancer from any of these organisms?

VRIENHOECK: The bacteria and animals live in a bath of chemicals from hydrogen sulfide to many salt-containing toxic metals, that would be extremely toxic to us. Yet they flourish. They thrive on it and they eat it for a living. So our interests, of course, are how in the world do they get away with this without these compounds being toxic to them? How do they convert toxic substances into food? And if they can do that, how can we learn from them to perhaps modify our own approach to toxic compounds in the environment?

CURWOOD: Being here on the east coast of the United States where there's a relative shortage of seafood compared to the population demand, just what do those giant clams and mussels taste like?

VRIENHOECK: I don't think you'd want to try (laughs).


VRIENHOECK: If you've ever smelled rotten eggs (laughs) you know the first thing that passes your mind when you cut one of these open. Every time one of the ship's crew walks into the lab on board the ship, their first response is to go, "Whoo! What is that?" (laughs)

CURWOOD: Bob Vrienhoeck is the chief scientist aboard the research vessel Atlantis. Thanks for joining us today, Bob.

VRIENHOECK: Well, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.



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