Scripps Scientists Explore the Mysteries and Challenges of the Deep Sea


From providing scientific expertise aboard this year's historic plunge to the world's deepest point to sounding the alarm about rising threats to the deep sea, scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego are exploring the mysteries and challenges of the deep sea as never before.

Scripps marine microbiologist Doug Bartlett will offer his perspective as chief scientist of this year's record-setting Deepsea Challenge expedition in which James Cameron became the first solo explorer to reach the Mariana Trench's "Challenger Deep" at a depth of 35,756 feet (6.77 miles). Bartlett and Cameron will share their experiences at a special presentation and press conference at the 2012 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. (U22C · Deepsea Challenge: New Science and Technology at Extreme Depths · Tuesday, Dec. 4, 12 p.m. Moscone North 134-135; Press Conference: Dec. 4, 2:30 p.m.)

With deep-sea samples captured from Cameron's submersible and deep-sea "lander" instruments, Bartlett and members of his laboratory are now analyzing the DNA of microbes that survive and thrive in the pitch-dark and punishing extremes of pressure and depth. In addition to searching for new life forms, the rare samples may give clues about whether such microbes could be sources of novel natural products with potential biomedical value.

"The Deepsea Challenge expedition is highlighting in stunning and dramatic fashion the alien-like environments that exist at great depth," said Bartlett. "Life forms at depths greater than 20,000 feet are part of the earth's biology that are least understood."

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Scripps biological oceanographer Lisa Levin has spent her career studying the unique animals of the deep sea, home to the world's largest ecosystem and yet one of the planet's least explored environments. Levin will discuss our transformed understanding of biodiversity along the ocean's deep continental margin regions, and the growing threats to that biodiversity, during the AGU Fall Meeting's Sverdrup Lecture, a presentation named in honor of Harald Sverdrup, the famed oceanographer, meteorologist and Scripps director. (OS53F · Deep Margins Under Pressure: Sustaining Biodiversity and Function Where Climate Change and Humans Collide; Friday, Dec. 7, 1:40 p.m. · Moscone West 2022-2024)

Researchers estimate that more than 14,000 tubeworms live in this 'bush' discovered at an extremely rare hybrid hydrothermal vent--methane seep site in the deep sea. Such structures are vulnerable to disturbance from fishing, mining and energy extraction.

Over the past 40 years a revolution in technology has led to discovery of a wealth of new life forms, symbioses, communities and ecosystems in the deep sea, many close to home on our continental margins. Driven by increasing levels of carbon dioxide, these margin systems are experiencing changes in temperature, oxygen and pH. Compounding the natural threats are dangers from increasing human encroachment through deep ocean exploitation of fisheries, energy and mineral resources. Levin will discuss how these activities intersect with natural and climate change-induced oxygen depletion as well as acidification and warming.

"The overprint of stress from climate change is likely to increase ecosystem vulnerability to human disturbance from oil and gas extraction, fishing and minerals mining, with threats to biodiversity and lowered resilience," said Levin, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps.

Levin believes such challenges demand a global commitment towards stewardship of deep-sea ecosystems and resources, backed by a mix of scientific, economic and policy expertise as well as the support of private and public stakeholders. 

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