Exploring the Dark Depths of the Oceans

Researchers seek to know the extent of life on Earth.

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Such devices are not widely available yet, but are expected to enjoy greater use in the coming years.  “There are only a small number of these types of tools, but they are moving toward commercialization,” she says. “We expect to eventually see them in lots of labs and other settings. What’s driving them? The search for life on this planet and beyond.”

Edwards’ earlier research, also in Pacific Ocean sites, demonstrated that the seafloor was teeming with microbial life to an extent the scientists found surprising.  While seafloor microbes had been detected before, this was the first time researchers were able to quantify them in large numbers. Edwards and her colleagues, using genetic analysis, found thousands of times more bacteria on the seafloor than in the water above. Their work was published in the journal Nature in 2008.

Now they are poised to learn more. Among other things, the team will recover sedimentary sequences from the ocean’s bottom, samples of particles that have rained down over time and become trapped. The material could answer enduring questions about the origins of life in the Dark World, possibly even about their effect upon life in the light. 

“As conditions change over years, they are recorded in the sediment,” Edwards says.  “This could provide an understanding of the evolution of life. I wonder if the deep biosphere could represent a microbial version of the Galapagos.”