Thursday, September 27, 2001
Researchers Find Glass-eating Microbes at the Rock Bottom of the Food Chain
Scripps Institution of Oceanography / University of California, San DiegoEMBARGOED BY SCIENCE
FOR RELEASE: 11 A.M. U.S. (Pacific)
Thursday, September 27, 2001
RESEARCHERS FIND GLASS-EATING MICROBES AT THE ROCK BOTTOM OF THE FOOD CHAIN
Welcome to the bottom of the deep-sea food chain. The rock bottom, that is. In the current edition of Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a team of researchers uncovers and characterizes a process that is commonplace below the ocean bottom. In the upper 300 meters of the earths oceanic crust, microbes were found to have literally eaten their way through rock. Traces of this process are preserved in the glassy margins of underwater lava flows (scientists call super-cooled lava spewed by undersea volcanoes "glass," which is similar to material used to make stone-age axes and knives). Glass samples were recovered by drilling as deep as four miles below sea level. "Weve documented how extensive these microscopic organisms are eating into volcanic rock, leaving worm-like tracks that look like someone has drilled their way in," said one of the papers co-authors, Hubert Staudigel of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. "Our study has confirmed that theres no place in the oceans that doesnt have these features." The process of volcanic rock changing from one state to another has traditionally been seen as a purely chemical-physical process, rather than biological. These rock alterations lead to chemical interactions between the oceanic crust and seawater, influencing important chemical cycles on the earth, including the carbon cycle that is important to the earths climate.
Staudigel says the microbes may tunnel their way into rock to derive chemical energy from the glass and to find protection from larger grazing organisms. He calls the glass-eating microbes the rock bottom of the food chain. "Weve basically determined the depth of the biosphere," said Staudigel. The study is featured as an "Editors Choice" selection in the September 28, 2001 edition of the journal Science. Co-authors include Harald Furnes, Ingunn H. Thorseth, and Ole Tumyr, Geological Institute, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway; Terje Torsvik, Department of Microbiology, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway; Karlis Muehlenbachs, Department of Geology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
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Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at University of California, San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest and most important centers for global science research and education in the world. The National Research Council has ranked Scripps first in faculty quality among oceanography programs nationwide Now in its second century of discovery, the scientific scope of the institution has grown to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. Hundreds of research programs covering a wide range of scientific areas are under way today in 65 countries. The institution has a staff of about 1,300, and annual expenditures of approximately $155 million from federal, state and private sources. Scripps operates one of the largest U.S. academic fleets with four oceanographic research ships and one research platform for worldwide exploration.
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