Microbes in deep-sea mud volcanoes may yield clues to alien life

April 8th, 2009 - 4:03 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, April 8 (ANI): Scientists have completed the first study of microbes that live within the plumbing of deep-sea mud volcanoes in the Gulf of Mexico, where conditions may resemble those in extraterrestrial environments and early Earth.

The study, which was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), was conducted in an area where clusters of seafloor vents spew mud, oil, brine and gases that support food chains independently of the Sun.

A team lead by Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia managed to collect fluid samples from the crater of an active, bubbling mud volcano and from a brine pool that was previously a mud volcano.

Brine pools are ponds of hyper-saline water that fill a seafloor depression without mixing with overlying seawater.

These types of ecosystems, which have only rarely been studied by microbiologists or visited by anyone, are particularly hostile to much of life because they are devoid of light and oxygen, and are super-salty and bathed in noxious gases.

Nevertheless, researchers found that the mud volcano and the brine pool each support dynamic microbial communities.

These microbial communities are not only distinct from each other but are also distinct from the microbial communities that live in the surrounding ocean.

Results of the study have implications for life processes everywhere from early Earth to Mars to moons in our Solar System, such as Jupiter’s Europa, where similarly extreme conditions may support microbiological life.

“Here we have more fascinating examples of microbial life coping with very, very unusual environments - regions of the ocean deeps that we can’t help but describe as extreme or harsh,” said Phillip Taylor, Head of NSF’s Ocean Section.

“Yet, life has clearly adapted to exist, even thrive, in these systems. Such discoveries can’t help but lead us to think that life beyond Earth is probable,” he added.

According to Joye, “Near mud volcanoes, we saw thick plumes of gas bubbles ejected from boiling mud pots that are similar to those found in Yellowstone National Park. These gas plumes, consisting mainly of methane, extended hundreds of meters from the sea floor.”

Bizarre phenomena abounded in the study area - from dancing eels that seemed to follow the window of the moving submersible, to a 50-foot wide volcano crater that was filled with a sulfur minerals and a reddish-colored microbial ooze.

“These are the kind of scenes I imagine could exist on distant planets or other astronomical bodies,” said Joye. (ANI)

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