Life discovered on dead hydrothermal vents

Jan 25, 2012

Scientists at USC have uncovered evidence that even when hydrothermal sea vents go dormant and their blistering warmth turns to frigid cold, life goes on.

Or rather, it is replaced.

A team led by USC Katrina Edwards found that the that thrive on hot fluid and spewed by active hydrothermal vents are supplanted, once the vents go cold, by microbes that feed on the solid iron and sulfur that make up the vents themselves.

These findings – based on samples collected for Edwards by US Navy deep sea submersible Alvin (famed for its exploration of the Titanic in 1986) – provide a rare example of ecological succession in microbes.

The findings were published today in mBio in an article authored by Edwards, USC graduate researcher Jason Sylvan, and Brandy Toner of the University of Minnesota.

Ecological succession is the biological phenomenon whereby one form of life takes the place of another as conditions in an area change – a phenomenon well-documented in plants and animals.

For example, after a forest fire, different species of trees replace the older ones that had stood for decades.

Scientists have long known that active vents provided the heat and nutrients necessary to maintain microbes. But dormant vents – lacking a flow of hot, nutrient-rich water – were thought to be devoid of life.

Hydrothermal vents are formed on the ocean floor with the motion of tectonic plates. Where the sea floor becomes thin, the hot magma below the surface creates a fissure that spews geothermally heated water – reaching temperatures of more than 400° C.

After a (geologically) brief time of actively venting into the ocean, the same sea floor spreading that brought them into being shuffles them away from the hotspot. The vents grow cold and dormant.

" are really ephemeral in nature," said Edwards, professor of biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Microbial communities on vents have been studied since the vents themselves were first discovered in the late 1970s. Until recently, little attention had been paid to them once they stopped venting, though.

Sylvan said he would like to take samples on vents of various ages to catalogue exactly how the succession from one population of microbes to the next occurs.

Edwards, who recently returned from a two-month expedition to collect samples of microbes deep below the ocean floor, said that the next step will be to see if the ecological succession is mirrored in microbes that exist beneath the surface of the rock.

"The next thing is to go subterranean," she said.

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gwrede
5 / 5 (5) Jan 25, 2012
All this increases the chances of finding subsurface life on Mars or Jovian or Saturnian moons. It also shows that (once life has gotten a good start on a planet) life is surprisingly resilient.

While man's existence here may be erased by nuclear war, a pandemic or a big meteorite, it is hard to imagine any kind of event that would erase all life from Earth. And this means that after a few tens of million years, the planet will again be teeming with life.
Squirrel
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2012
And one might add to gwrede, in a few hundred of millions of years, after such extinction, the planet will again be teeming with intelligent life that will start another nuclear war that will erase all life and repeat the cycle ...
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2012
in a few hundred of millions of years, after such extinction, the planet will again be teeming with intelligent life

Not necessarily. It seems that the disnoaurs managed to be the dominant form for hundreds of millions of years without developing intelligence (or at least the largest...'dominant' is a very subjective term). And if they hadn't been snuffed out it's unlikley they would ever have gained it.

Intelligence seems to be only one of several possibilities for life to get to the top.
Telekinetic
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 25, 2012
". And if they hadn't been snuffed out it's unlikley they would ever have gained it.
Intelligence seems to be only one of several possibilities for life to get to the top."- antialias
That's a big presumption on your part, and smacks of human ego and hubris at its highest level. Dinosaurs would always be inferior to Man because why, they didn't speak our language or drive cars? Man is at the bottom, and many times a highly developed brain produces neurosis, sometimes psychosis, and in many cases narcissism, a misplaced belief in one's superiority.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2012
Dinosaurs would always be inferior to Man because why, they didn't speak our language or drive cars?

Did I say they were inferior? By some measures they are far more successful than man (e.g. time they have managed to survive on this planet as the predominant lifeform)

But since there are no objective standards th notion of superiority/inferiority has no part in nature. The only thing that counts (for a species) is survival. If survival works without intelligence - then that's OK. If it works with intelligence, then that's OK, too.

I just argue that intelligence is not necessarily the direction evolution eventually takes. It is just one of at least two (and possibly many) 'successful' strategies.
sdf_iain
4.3 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2012
Two points gentlemen:
1. Non-avian dinosaurs are extinct and the intelligence of avian dinosaurs is a recurring topic on physorg.
2. Saying the dinosaurs were on top is analogous to saying the mammals are on top now... current dinosaurs regularly eat current mammals. :p
Anda
5 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2012
Dinosaurs were developping intelligence.
Deynonichus wrongly known as velociraptors seemed to behave and have similar intelligence as wolves.
It also seems that craws and other birds have some...
Telekinetic
1.3 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2012
@ antialias:
Pardon my use of the word "inferior", but you do presume that dinosaur intelligence would unlikely have been gained after their extinction. We've all been fed a lot of conjecture on the intelligence of all beasts,and I don't think anyone would know how to measure the I.Q. of an extinct species. Dolphins are close with humans, and a few other species are compared to human children. In terms of survival, many races of homo sapiens have become extinct with their own distinct languages and cultures over time. The present dominant race of humans is a pitiable bunch, the most self-destructive in earth's history, with locust-like behavior, and breeding far past sustainable limits. Today's humans brutalize their children who become brutes themselves. The beauty of dinosaurs and other beasts is that they lived according to their nature. We're not like them, getting further away from our nature and paying the consequences. I can't say if survival is always the measure of success.
jsa09
not rated yet Jan 25, 2012
survival is the only useful measure of success.

And it would seem extinction is inevitable.

But man is only one of the many mammals and of these rodents are arguably the most successful and therefore the top of the evolution tree.

Sure we take advantage of some rodents but so too does e-coli take advantage of us.
nevermark
5 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2012
"survival is the only useful measure of success."

That is indeed the bottom line. I think when people intuitively suggest we are the most successful it is because we are the species with the greatest ability to adapt our environment to ourselves. Genetically designed food production, elimination of threatening or inconvenient species, and leaving footprints on the moon are clearly beyond any other species. Whether that translates into long term survival remains to be seen.

And we are also most successful on another dimension: quality of life. While E-coli and cockroaches have a high level of survival success, do they have boats and ho's? I think not!. They don't even know they exist.

That's not the kind of success we are looking for!
jsa09
not rated yet Jan 26, 2012
but once the word success can mean different things to different people then we have a failure to communicate. In the above discussion and many others on this site many people equate technology with success.

But in evolutionary terms technology is just a survival mechanism which is one of many different methods of survival.

Success therefore can only be measured by survival. Some animals have evolved to survive in very very specific environments and can do so better than any other creature on the planet.

But if that environment changes ... kaput.

So clearly there is many ways of describing success one could be in just number of generations without significant mutation.

Another could be in years, or perhaps living representatives, or number of different niches of the environment occupied.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (6) Jan 26, 2012
In a post-nuclear apocalyptic scenario, the humans who survive may produce offspring that may look nothing like the humans we are today. To me, horribly disfigured children are not my idea of success.
Parsec
3 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2012
In a post-nuclear apocalyptic scenario, the humans who survive may produce offspring that may look nothing like the humans we are today. To me, horribly disfigured children are not my idea of success.

Actually, in a post nuclear war world, most children wouldn't necessarily be deformed. Radiation would be a constant danger, but with sufficient vigilance can be avoided. I suspect that its more likely that death rates from cancer would be a lot higher, in children and in the elderly. I base this on studies about the long term effects in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cancer rates are a lot higher, but mostly years after the attacks. Most of the radiation decayed pretty quickly.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2012
In a post-nuclear apocalyptic scenario, the humans who survive may produce offspring that may look nothing like the humans we are today. To me, horribly disfigured children are not my idea of success.

Actually, in a post nuclear war world, most children wouldn't necessarily be deformed. Radiation would be a constant danger, but with sufficient vigilance can be avoided. I suspect that its more likely that death rates from cancer would be a lot higher, in children and in the elderly. I base this on studies about the long term effects in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cancer rates are a lot higher, but mostly years after the attacks. Most of the radiation decayed pretty quickly.

There's a job waiting for you as a spin doctor in the State Department. The atomic radiation levels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be far less than today's nuclear weapons, which would unlikely be launched singly. A nuclear war conducted today would consist of multiple deployments.