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Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents Found to Be Key Source of Food for Microorganisms

NSF Award:

COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH: Processes and patterns in back arc basin hydrothermal vent communities  (University of Delaware)

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Researchers have found that hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean are spewing out nanoparticles of the mineral pyrite. These nanoparticles may control the concentration of a vital nutrient in seawater--iron.

The findings from the University of Delaware have major implications for biodiversity and microbial life in the deep ocean as well as carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and atmosphere. They therefore shed new light for scientists working in the realm of climate change.

Hydrothermal vents are the link between the earth's interior and the deep sea. Pyrite consists of one iron for every two sulfurs, and is known as "fool's gold." Although fool's gold is not something miners wanted to find during the California gold rush, it is far better than gold when it comes to providing food for bacteria and plankton, both of which need iron to grow. Though iron is common on land and in rocks, it occurs in low concentrations in seawater. But the study found that the "nanopyrite" being vented is abundant and may control the concentration of iron in seawater--and thus the growth of bacteria and plankton.

The nanopyrite is one thousand times smaller in diameter than a human hair. Because it's so small, it does not fall to the seafloor but remains suspended in the water column and can travel long distances. Because it does not rapidly react with oxygen (i.e., form "rust") in seawater, the particles also act like "time release" capsules of iron for marine micro-organisms--similar to an iron supplement for humans. In addition, they can drift long distances to areas where iron is depleted.

This research involved deep-sea expeditions with sophisticated robotic vehicles and sensors to sample vent waters. The team consists of experts in chemical oceanography, physical chemistry, and transmission electron microscopy. Team members were G.W. Luther, M. Yucel, A. Gartman, and C.S. Chan.

Images (1 of )

  • pyrite, also known as "fool's gold"
  • hydrothermal vent known as a "black smoker"
  • submersible Alvin
  • A remotely operated vehicle, Jason II
  • headquarters for remote exploration of deep sea hydrothermal vents
Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com
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This vigorously venting black smoker emits jets of particle-laden fluids that create the "black smoke". The particles are predominantly very fine-grained sulfide minerals formed when the hot hydrothermal fluids mix with near freezing seawater.
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The submersible Alvin explored the role of "fool's gold," or pyrite, in the deep sea.
Mustafa Yucel
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Jason II, a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, was also used to sample pyrite nanoparticles.
Mustafa Yucel
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Jason II's control room, headquarters for remotely operated exploration of hydrothermal vents.
Mustafa Yucel
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