Life in ‘Inner Space’
Undiscovered 'alien' life forms that thrive without sunlight in temperatures approaching boiling point may soon come to light thanks to a groundbreaking Irish-led marine research mission aboard the national research vessel RV Celtic Explorer. In collaboration with scientists from the UK's National Oceanography Centre, the researchers are due to sail from Galway for the mid-Atlantic Ridge today (Wednesday 13th July). The voyage is being filmed for the National Geographic Channel for inclusion in an upcoming series about the ocean.
The mission, led by Dr. Andy Wheeler of University College, Cork (UCC), will be investigating life at 3,000 metres below the surface of the sea on the '45o North MAR hydrothermal vent field' using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Holland 1. These vents, which spew mineral rich seawater heated to boiling point by volcanic material in the earth's crust below, are home to a rich variety of marine life that thrives in complete darkness on bacteria fed by chemicals.
Patrick Collins from NUI Galway's Ryan Institute will lead Ireland's marine biological team investigating this unique ecosystem, which could tell us not only about how life might have evolved on other planets, but may also be a rich source of new biochemical processes with valuable medical and industrial applications.
"This expedition offers us the first opportunity to investigate mineral deposits and vent animals in this unexplored and important part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge," said Dr. Bramley Murton of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOC), who first discovered the location of the vents on an expedition aboard the UK research vessel RRS James Cook in 2008, and who is now leading the mineralisation study on the expedition. "Nothing is known about the hydrothermal vents, their mineral deposits or the life they support on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the islands of the Azores to the south and Iceland to the north. Because this part of the ridge is trapped between these islands, vent animals may have evolved in isolation and be quite unique from elsewhere."
Patrick Collins, in collaboration with Jon Copley of the NOC, will catalogue and characterise the species found at the vents. According to Patrick, "We hope to find a whole community of previously unknown species, increasing our understanding of deep sea biogeography. There is potential here to put Ireland on the global map as a serious player in deep sea science. This is all the more timely with the exploitation of deep sea and hydrothermal vents for precious metals and rare earth minerals now a reality."
Another objective of the mission is to investigate the rich deposits of deepwater corals on the Porcupine Bank's 'Moira Mound', which has already been designated as a Special Area of Conservation. These corals, which are very delicate and grow extremely slowly, are highly susceptible to damage by deepwater trawling and mineral dredging operations. Dr. Andy Wheeler, Chief Scientist of the Expedition, is a veteran of four previous ROV surveys to coldwater coral mounds.
This mission is supported by the Marine Institute under the 2011 Ship-Time Programme of the National Development Plan. "This project is a perfect example of how strategic funding can pump-prime world-class marine research led from Ireland into new and exciting areas with tremendous potential for future sustainable development," said Dr. Peter Heffernan, Chief Executive of the Marine Institute. The research is also supported by the National Geographic Society.
The mission carries geochemists, marine biologists, marine geologists, marine geneticists and technicians from Ireland and the UK as well as a three-person TV crew from National Geographic. They will spend 25 days at sea and will be posting a regular blog on http://scientistsatsea.blogspot.com
For further information please contact:
Dr. John Joyce – Communications Manager, Marine Institute Ph: + 353 (0)87 2250871
Kim Marshall-Brown – Communications Officer, National Oceanography Centre, UK Ph: +44 (0)23 8059 6100
Marie McSweeney – Marketing and Communications Office University College, Cork Ph: + 353 (0) 21 4902371
Ruth Hynes – Press Executive, NUI Galway Ph: + 353 (0) 87 6659899
Notes To Editor
The Mission The mission is led by Chief Scientist Dr. Andy Wheeler – Vice Head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Senior Lecturer at University College, Cork (UCC).
Other team members include:
Dr. Bram Murton (Geochemist) – National Oceanography Centre.
Prof. John Gamble (Geochemist) – UCC Prof. John Benzie (Marine Genetics) - UCC
Dr. Jens Carlsson (Marine Genetics) – UCC Prof. Tom Cross (Marine Genetics) - UCC
Patrick Collins (Marine Biologist) – NUI Galway
Dr. Jon Copley (Marine Biologist) – University of Southampton
Verity Nye (Marine Biologist) – University of Southampton
Dr. Boris Dorschel (Marine Geologist) – UCC
Mark Coughlan (Marine Geologist) – UCC
The purpose of the mission is to study two major, deep-sea ecosystems in relation to:
The biogeography and evolution of chemical-based ecosystems on the first deep-water hydrothermal vent field yet detected along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the Azores and Iceland and;
The significant westward extension of the known area of active coral growth in the Porcupine Seabight.
Hydrothermal vents occur where cracks in the Earth's crust allow seawater to penetrate downwards into areas of subterranean volcanic activity. Here the seawater is not only heated to boiling point, but also permeated with dissolved minerals and suspended solids from the molten rock. This heated seawater then gushes back upwards into the ocean, giving rise to 'black smokers' and 'white smokers' – similar in appearance to miniature erupting volcanoes.
The '45o North MAR hydrothermal vent field' being investigated by the mission, was first discovered in 2008 by scientists aboard the UK research vessel RRS James Cook through the pinpointing of a plume of heated water emanating from the seabed. The VENTure expedition will deploy the Remotely Operated Vehicle ROV Holland 1 to precisely locate the source of the heated water and then to film and sample around the hydrothermal vent field.
Like their tropical counterparts, deepwater (or coldwater) corals are colonies of simple animals resembling sea anemones that secrete calcium carbonate to protect themselves, forming extensive and delicate reefs. Over millennia, these reefs build up to form 'carbonate mounds' on the seabed which can be detected using sound waves. Because their delicate nature makes coldwater coral reefs susceptible to damage from dredging or deepwater fishing, and because they form unique ecosystems offering shelter to a wide variety of marine life, many coldwater coral reefs around the Irish coast have been declared 'Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)'. The VENTure expedition will map the coral reefs on the western Moira Mounds and deploy the ROV Holland 1 to estimate the abundance and density of live coral.
RV Celtic Explorer
The RV Celtic Explorer is 65.5m in length and accommodates 35 personnel, including 19-21 scientists. She is able to facilitate both national and international research and exploration. The vessel is based in Galway, which is ideally located as the gateway to the Atlantic and geographically close to the main working areas. Apart from being an excellently designed vessel, fitted with the latest electronics and scientific equipment, the key attributes of the Celtic Explorer include:
The vessel is acoustically silent which minimises fish avoidance and provides an ideal environment for the collection of high quality acoustic data with minimal interference from vessel noise.
The new vessel is a multipurpose vessel, being able to change from a survey programme to a fisheries programme, with relative ease.
Large laboratory spaces and IT rooms fitted with scientific equipment.
A full complement of survey equipment and winches.
Adapted to accommodate a variety of Remotely Operated Vehicles including the Deepwater ROV Holland IROV Holland 1
The Marine Institute's Deepwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Holland 1 was funded by the European Regional Development fund (ERDF). It is named after John Phillip Holland from Liscannor, Co. Clare, Ireland who was an early inventor and builder of submarines.
This 3000 metre rated system allows an expansion in the level of deepwater research undertaken by Irish researchers as well as being available as a national resource to state agencies in emergency situations such as casualty investigation, wreck surveys or salvage.
The ROV system was designed and built by SMD Ltd (Newcastle, UK) and is designed to be capable of accommodating a wide range of user equipment without modification from the outset. Ample space is available within the vehicle frame for accommodation of scientific payload, numerous survey ports for a wide variety of equipment including multi-beam, CTD, nutrient sensors as well as numerous spare serial and I/O ports which have been incorporated into the system to allow a wide range of scientific sensors to be deployed.
The vehicle is equipped with a high level of auto control features including auto hold which is invaluable in the completion of delicate scientific tasks. The vehicle is also equipped with the latest underwater camera equipment including a HDTV camera and recording system to allow the capture of high definition footage for a variety of uses. This will be augmented by a unique underwater lighting system being developed by the Irish company Cathx Ocean as part of a robotic "machine vision" system designed to significantly enhance image quality and to increase the autonomous function of remotely operated vehicles, thereby increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
The ROV Holland 1 is fully contained system including launch and recovery systems and whilst primarily designed to operate from the RV Celtic Explorer, is readily capable of mobilization from a range of suitable vessels as required.