Bay Paul Center

Contact: Terry Collins: 1-416-538-8712; or Diana Kenney, MBL: 508-289-7139;

The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), a $500 million, 10-year international program that aims to reveal the quantity, movements, forms and origins of carbon inside our planet, has released its first major product after three years of inquiry: the volume Carbon on Earth.

Mitchell Sogin, director of the MBL’s Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, co-chairs the DCO’s Deep Life Directorate. This group is discovering and describing the microbes and viruses that live in the deep ocean and beneath the ocean floor, and how they interact with deep carbon cycles. Guiding questions include:

* What’s down there?

* Do different geological environments host different populations of microbes and viruses?

* How do they adapt to extreme environmental conditions in order to survive?

* How does biological carbon link to the slower deep cycle, and is biologically processed carbon represented in deep-Earth reservoirs?

* Did deep biochemistry play a central role in life’s origins?

The variety of bacterial life at extreme high-pressure depths worldwide constitutes a subterranean “Galapagos,” DCO scientists say, adding that such subsurface life comprises a large portion of Earth’s total biomass — estimated in the late 1990s to be a third to a half of all life, though that figure is now considered high.

DNA has unearthed a marvel of diversity among deep single-celled micro-organisms, notably Archaea. And deep fungi-organisms with complex cell structures (eukaryotes) in the marine subsurface, have been a scientific surprise.

“Given the extraordinarily low rates of respiration, subsurface microbes must reproduce very slowly, if at all,” says Deep Life Directorate member Steven D’Hondt of the University of Rhode Island. “They take at least hundreds to thousands of years to reproduce and it’s conceivable that they live without dividing for millions to tens of millions of years,” he says. Still to be determined, Dr. D’Hondt notes, is the extent to which these organisms are “microbial zombies, incapable of being revived to a normal state.”

Sogin and MBL scientist Julie Huber, a microbial oceanographer who is also involved with the Deep Life Directorate, are this week attending the Deep Carbon Observatory’s International Science Meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.


While we know approximately the thickness of Earth’s layers, the quantities of carbon below the surface in each layer remain a mystery. In fact, even the estimates of the carbon in the crust are quite uncertain. Fluxes between the layers complicate the mystery and the quest of the Deep Carbon Observatory. Credit: Deep Carbon Observatory

Bookmark and Share




What microbes really do survive in the superhot, sunless conditions of undersea volcanoes? A publication this week by the MBL’s Julie Huber and colleagues describes one type that can stand the heat: methane producers (methanogens), including some unusual ones that feed symbiotically on the hydrogen waste of neighboring microbes. The study, led by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Many more discoveries are bound to come, as Huber and colleagues set sail in September to launch a major, multi-year effort to describe the mysterious world of microbial life in deep-sea volcanic fluids and rocks.

Hydrothermal vent field at Axial Seamount seen through the porthole of the submersible Alvin. Credit: Mark Spear/WHOI





Plastic trash — fishing line, food containers, tampon cases, all kinds of polymer-based throw-aways — is the most abundant form of marine debris. It’s puzzling, though, that despite the glut of plastic production since World War II ( current global production is about 77 pounds of plastic a year for each of the 7 billion humans on the planet), no significant trend in plastic accumulation in the ocean has been observed since 1985. While an alarming amount of plastic washes up onshore, another chunk of it is being degraded at sea. Marine plastics are known to break down due to physical shearing and photodegradation, and MBL scientist Linda Amaral Zettler wants to know if and how microbes are involved, as well.

Amaral Zettler recently received a collaborative NSF grant to explore the “Plastisphere”–the microbial communities attached to and surrounding marine plastic debris. By determining what microbes are found in the Plastisphere and what they are doing, Amaral Zettler and her collaborators hope to determine the key biological factors that control the fate of plastic debris in the open ocean. This will open up new questions to explore, such as “How is the abundance of plastic debris affecting the health of open ocean environments and their food webs? Can a truly biodegradable plastic be formulated that can have minimal impact on marine ecosystems?”

At present, Amaral Zettler is aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, a vessel operated by Sea Education Association (SEA) of Woods Hole. Amaral Zettler is working with the faculty at SEA to develop a new semester course in Marine Biodiversity Conservation. As part of this trip, she and SEA students are collecting marine plastic samples to begin studying The Plastisphere.  Below is an update Amaral Zettler sent this week from onboard the ship.

Images from the June 2012 SS Corwith Cramer research cruise spanning over seven orders of magnitude in size (1 micrometer bacterial cell to 15 meter whale). Petri plate with marine bacterial colonies, plastic marine debris, viper fish, and humpback whale. Credit: Linda Amaral Zettler

12 June 2012

Ship Position: 42N x 69W
Weather: wind SxW, force 4. Sailing downwind under square sails
Seas: 3-5′

The SSV Corwith Cramer left Bermuda just over a week ago and has been sailing north of the Gulf Stream for several days now. Gone are the blue, blue, deep, deep waters of the Sargasso Sea but new discoveries await in the productive waters off Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine as we transit back to the New England shore. This morning’s pod of humpbacks that greeted us for a pre-breakfast interlude was a nice example.

Our students aboard have logged many hours at the microscope identifying species of Sargassum hydroids, 15 species of deep-water myctophid fishes, and over 50 morphotypes of microbes belonging to the genus Vibrio. Other student projects are explorng the population genetic variability in the larvae of spiny lobsters, North-American and European eel larvae,
Sargassum shrimp, and the Sargassum macroalgae that constitute the hallmark of the Sargasso Sea. Their data will be added to the International Ocean Biogeographic Information System (iOBIS) database, the database that served the former Census of Marine Life (, and the Encyclopedia of Life ( Additional voucher samples will help promote conservation efforts via the Ocean Genome Legacy by preserving a variety of Sargasso Sea species for later downstream genetic barcoding.

Students in the microbes group are also contributing directly to an NSF-funded project examining the diversity, function and fate of microbes on plastic marine debris in the open ocean. Leading this NSF project are Amaral Zettler, Tracy Mincer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution [WHOI] and Erik Zettler of SEA.

In addition to traditional morphological identifications, for the first time aboard these sailing school vessels, students have extracted genomic DNA from their samples and used molecular biology techniques taught onshore to target marker genes of interest for their individual projects. Their precious samples are being sequenced this week at the W. M. Keck Sequencing Facility in the Josephine Bay Paul Center at the MBL in Woods Hole.

Upon return, students will add their new molecular findings to their existing data to prepare  independent research projects that they will formally present as part of a science-policy symposium the final week of the course. Through a unique blend of hands-on research science and policy education, Marine Biodiversity Conservation students will have an opportunity to narrow the gap between science and policy makers while helping to affect change in the protection of the high seas.

MBL microbial oceanographer Julie Huber will study the microbial life in the erupting fluids from this undersea volcano, helping scientists understand how life adapts to some of the harshest conditions on Earth.

The manipulator arm of the ROV Jason prepares to sample the new lava flow that erupted in April 2011 at Axial Seamount, located off the Oregon coast. Photo courtesy of Bill Chadwick, Oregon State University; copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

While some of the MBL courses have ended and students have re-dispersed, with promises to stay in touch, the Brown/MBL graduate students are looking forward to the academic year in Woods Hole. This photo of Brown/MBL student Anupriya (Priya) Dutta, who is pouring a gel in a Bay Paul Center lab at sunset, captures the long, light-filled days of August when the excitement of fall is still around the corner. Fellow Brown/MBL student Alex Valm took the photo of Dutta, who is working with MBL faculty member David Mark Welch on genome evolution of bdelloid rotifers.

Brown/MBL student Anupriya Dutta. Photo by Alex Valm

Brown/MBL student Anupriya Dutta. Photo by Alex Valm

« Previous Page