New deep-sea hot springs discovered in the Atlantic

<IMG SRC="/Images/82986772.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="262" BORDER="0" ALT="The hydrothermal vent crab Segonzacia is on a mound that is covered with white bacteria and mineral precipitates. – MARUM”>
The hydrothermal vent crab Segonzacia is on a mound that is covered with white bacteria and mineral precipitates. – MARUM

Scientists from the MARUM Center for Marine Environmental Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen on board the German research vessel Meteor have discovered a new hydrothermal vent 500 kilometers south-west of the Azores. The vent with chimneys as high as one meter and fluids with temperatures up to 300 degrees Celsius was found at one thousand meters water depth in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The discovery of the new deep-sea vent is remarkable because the area in which it was found has been intensively studied during previous research cruises. The MARUM and Max Planck researchers describe their discovery in their video blog.

The Bremen scientists were able to find the hydrothermal vent by using the new, latest-generation multibeam echosounder on board the research vessel Meteor that allows the imaging of the water column above the ocean floor with previously unattained precision. The scientists saw a plume of gas bubbles in the water column at a site about 5 kilometers away from the known large vent field Menez Gwen that they were working on. A dive with the remote-controlled submarine MARUM-QUEST revealed the new hydrothermal site with smokers and animals typically found at vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Since the discovery of the new vent, the scientists have been intensively searching the water column with the multibeam echosounder. To their astonishment, they have already found at least five other sites with gas plumes. Some even lie outside the volcanically active spreading zone in areas where hydrothermal activity was previously not assumed to occur.

“Our results indicate that many more of these small active sites exist along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge than previously assumed,” said Dr. Nicole Dubilier, the chief scientist of the expedition. “This could change our understanding of the contribution of hydrothermal activity to the thermal budget of the oceans. Our discovery is also exciting because it could provide the answer to a long standing mystery: We do not know how animals travel between the large hydrothermal vents, which are often separated by hundreds to thousands of kilometres from each other. They may be using these smaller sites as stepping stones for their dispersal.”

Research on deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic is the objective of the 30 marine scientists from Hamburg, Bremen, Kiel, Portugal, and France who have been on board the German research vessel Meteor since September 6th. The expedition to the submarine volcano Menez Gwen near the Azores is financed by MARUM, the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences in Bremen. “One of the questions that the team would like to answer is why the hydrothermal sources in this area emit so much methane – a very potent greenhouse gas,” says chief scientist Nicole Dubilier, who is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Census of Marine Life Vents and Seeps project ChEss (Chemosynthetic Ecosystem Science). “Another important focus of the research is the deep-sea mussels that live at the hydrothermal vents and host symbiotic bacteria in their gills. The mussels obtain their nutrition from these bacteria.”

Grad student to study unique soil around Yellowstone hot springs

A Montana State University graduate student has received a fellowship to study soil crusts unlike any he has ever seen.

Located around some of the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, the soil is very fine, soft and has a unique rippled texture that reminds him of a brain, said James Meadow, recipient of the Boyd Evison Graduate Fellowship. It houses microorganisms, but mostly consists of the glassy dead bodies of diatoms. Diatoms are microscopic algae that turn light into energy. Their cell walls are made of silica.

“The diatoms are what makes this soil crust so unique,” Meadow said. “Diatom deposits are generally only found in lake and marine sediments. … It is very unique to find these deposits growing on the soil surface.”

He noticed the unusual crust while sampling plants near alkaline hot pools in the Imperial Meadow of the Lower Geyser Basin, Meadow said. Working on his Ph.D. in ecology and environmental sciences, Meadow said his primary research deals with fungi that live symbiotically with plant roots. Symbiosis occurs in all soil systems, but his Ph.D. research focuses on fungi that thrive in harsh thermal environments.

Cathy Zabinski, his adviser in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, said ,”If we can understand how plant/microbe interactions enable plants to grow in this extreme environment, we can also apply those same principles to other extreme environments, such as remediation sites after mining activities. We are also using this work to understand how plants might respond to warming soil temperatures in the future.”

Grand Teton National Park and the Grand Teton Association selected Meadow out of 19 applicants for the 2010 fellowship that honors the late Boyd Evison. Evison worked 42 years with the National Park Service and then became executive director for the Grand Teton Association, which is dedicated to aiding interpretive, educational and research programs for Grand Teton National Park. The fellowship program — which will give Meadow approximately $10,000 over two years — encourages scientific and conservation-related research in Grand Teton and throughout the Greater Yellowstone. It supports research leading to a master’s or doctoral degree in the biosciences, geosciences or social sciences.

The fellowship allows recipients to develop their own ideas, independent of the projects their advisers have funded, Zabinski said.

“From a graduate training perspective, there is no better way to prepare students for the academic job market,” Zabinski said.

Meadow said he will use his fellowship to study the composition, diversity and ecological environmental of the soil he observed in Yellowstone. The soil changes color and texture with the season. A product of thermal vents, it is loaded with chemicals, especially silica.

A major benefit of the fellowship is that it will allow him to conduct molecular analysis, Meadow added. Instead of identifying organisms under a microscope, which could take years, he can crush small samples of the soil, pull as much DNA as possible and run tests to identify the organisms that live in the soil and, to some extent, tell what they are doing.

“It’s pretty common to find new organisms in these environments,” Meadow said. “What I have seen so far is, it seems to be a combination of common crust organisms, along with those only found in thermal environments.

Soil crusts — generally called biological soil crusts — are composed mostly of bacteria (primarily cyanobacteria), fungi, lichens and mosses, Meadow said. They also incorporate the top few millimeters of soil. They dominate in arid soils where plants are limited and open patches of soil are exposed to full sunlight.

Scientists have conducted extensive studies of the crust environments in Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park, both in Utah, Meadow said. But he found nothing to indicate that anyone had researched thermal crusts like he noticed in Yellowstone.

His findings — besides contributing to general scientific knowledge — will be shared with the Grand Teton Association, park visitors and others, Meadow said. He will work with park staff to create interpretative materials that will explain the diversity of life forms that live only in thermal ecosystems, specifically the soil.

His research might also contribute to environmental restoration, Meadow said. Meadow worked on ecological restoration projects at mines and other industrial sites throughout the West before coming to MSU.

“Doing that, it became obvious to me that a lot of the time restoration kind of fails because we don’t really understand how organisms live in really harsh environments in natural systems,” Meadow said. “Thermal soil biology gives me a chance to see how organisms cope with really, really tough environments.”

Zabinski said the area is “absolutely fascinating.”

“You find really poorly developed soils, low nutrient levels for plant growth, soil temperatures that are at the extreme of what plant tissues can tolerate, and a set of plants, some of which only grow on hot soils and others which are widely distributed and can also tolerate the heat,” she said.

Hot springs microbes hold key to dating sedimentary rocks, researchers say

Mammoth Hotsprings in Yellowstone National Park
Mammoth Hotsprings in Yellowstone National Park

Scientists studying microbial communities and the growth of sedimentary rock at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park have made a surprising discovery about the geological record of life and the environment.

Their discovery could affect how certain sequences of sedimentary rock are dated, and how scientists might search for evidence of life on other planets.

“We found microbes change the rate at which calcium carbonate precipitates, and that rate controls the chemistry and shape of calcium carbonate crystals,” said Bruce Fouke, a professor of geology and of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois.

In fact, the precipitation rate can more than double when microbes are present, Fouke and his colleagues report in a paper accepted for publication in the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

The researchers’ findings imply changes in calcium carbonate mineralization rates in the rock record may have resulted from changes in local microbial biomass concentrations throughout geologic history.

A form of sedimentary rock, calcium carbonate is the most abundant mineral precipitated on the surface of Earth, and a great recorder of life.

“As calcium carbonate is deposited, it leaves a chemical fingerprint of the animals and environment, the plants and bacteria that were there,” said Fouke, who also is affiliated with the university’s Institute for Genomic Biology.

The extent to which microorganisms influence calcium carbonate precipitation has been one of the most controversial issues in the field of carbonate sedimentology and geochemistry. Separating biologically precipitated calcium carbonate from non-biologically precipitated calcium carbonate is difficult.

Fouke’s research team has spent 10 years quantifying the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the hot springs environment. The last step in deciphering the calcium carbonate record was performing an elaborate field experiment, which drew water from a hot springs vent and compared deposition rates with and without microbes being present.

“Angel Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park is an ideal, natural laboratory because of the high precipitation rates and the abundance of microbes,” Fouke said. “Calcium carbonate grows so fast – millimeters per day – we can examine the interaction between microorganisms and the calcium-carbonate precipitation process.”

The researchers found that the rate of precipitation drops drastically – sometimes by more than half – when microbes are not present.

“So one of the fingerprints of calcium carbonate deposition that will tell us for sure if there were microbes present at the time it formed is the rate at which it formed,” Fouke said. “And, within the environmental and ecological context of the rock being studied, we can now use chemistry to fingerprint the precipitation rate.”

In a second paper, to appear in the Journal of Sedimentary Research, Fouke and colleagues show how the calcium carbonate record in a spring’s primary flow path can be used to reconstruct the pH, temperature and flux of ancient hot springs environments. The researchers also show how patterns in calcium carbonate crystallization can be used to differentiate signatures of life from those caused by environmental change.

“This means we can go into the rock record, on Earth or other planets, and determine if calcium carbonate deposits were associated with microbial life,” Fouke said.

Geyser, hot spring researchers, educators to meet at Yellowstone

This is one of more than 10,000 active geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. Researchers and educators who study them will gather Jan. 10-13 in Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy of MSU).
This is one of more than 10,000 active geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. Researchers and educators who study them will gather Jan. 10-13 in Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy of MSU).

More than 100 scientists and educators from the United States and abroad will gather Jan. 10-13 in Yellowstone National Park to share their findings on the unique biology and chemistry of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents.

Some of the best-known and most active researchers involved in Yellowstone geothermal biology and geochemistry will attend the conference at the Mammoth Hotel, said organizer Bill Inskeep of Montana State University. The conference will focus on Yellowstone geothermal systems, but it will also include discussions on the sun-heated salt lakes of Egypt, salt mats in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, and the microbes that dominate Russian hot springs.

Scientists who study extreme environments are drawn to Yellowstone because it contains more active geothermal features than any other location on the planet, Inskeep said. Those features are also very diverse, he added. Geothermal environments are obviously very hot, but they offer a variety of chemical extremes, some of which are relevant to applications in bioenergy and bioprocessing.

Researchers working with NASA who are interested in the search for life on other planets examine microorganisms that thrive in the extreme environments on this planet, Inskeep said. Those may be high temperatures or extremely acidic conditions. For visitors who are curious about the numerous and often brilliant colors in geothermal systems, this group of scientists can explain how the reds, greens and yellows that appear in Yellowstone’s hot springs relate to microorganisms and mineral deposits.

This is the third time since 2003 that Inskeep and his colleagues at MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute have organized the conference for researchers who are part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Coordination Network focused on Yellowstone’s geothermal biology. Conference lectures are free and open to the public, but space is limited. Those interested in attending should contact Zack Jay at (406) 994- 6404 or For questions regarding the conference or the RCN, contact Inskeep at (406) 994-5077.

The schedule of conference lectures is:

Thursday, Jan. 10

  • 8 p.m. — Extreme hydrothermal explosion events in Yellowstone National Park.

Friday, Jan. 11

  • 8:30 a.m. — Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center and the Yellowstone Thermal Inventory
  • 8:50 a.m. — Change detection of Yellowstone’s active thermal areas using airborne and satellite thermal infrared sensors.
  • 9:10 a.m. — Chemical anatomy of the Firehole River: Results from the September 2007 synoptic sampling. Source and fate of thermal and non-thermal solutes in the Gibbon River of Yellowstone.
  • 9:40 a.m. — The influence of sublacustrine hydrothermal vent fluids on the geochemistry of Yellowstone Lake.
  • 10 a.m. — Yellowstone Lake: Genetic diversity in an aquatic, vent-impacted system.
  • 10:20 a.m. — Break.
  • 10:50 a.m. — Geochemical energy sources across Yellowstone.
  • 11:10 a.m. — A microbial inventory of Yellowstone thermal features. Geochemical controls on microbial community composition from varied hot spring environments.
  • 11:40 a.m. — GEOTHERM: The RCN relationship database focused on geothermal biology and geochemistry in Yellowstone National Park.
  • Noon — Lunch. Updates on benefit sharing and research permitting in Yellowstone.
  • 2 p.m. — Mammoth Hot Springs: Carbonate biomineralization in response to environmental change in temperature and oxygen concentration.
  • 2:20 p.m. — Diversity of Chloroflexus-like organisms in an iron-depositing hot spring in Yellowstone.
  • 2:40 p.m. — A comparison of H2 and H2S as energy sources for primary production in an acidic geothermal spring.
  • 3 p.m. — Nitrogen cycling at high temperatures: Thermophilic ammonia oxidizing Archaea in Yellowstone Hot Springs.
  • 3:20 p.m. — Ammonia-oxidizing Archaea in terrestrial hot springs.
  • 3:40 p.m. — The effect of environmental conditions on the distribution of the Mercuric Reductase gene in mercury-enriched acidic and circumneutral hot springs in Yellowstone National Park.
  • 4 p.m. — Isolation and characterization of early evolving mercury resistant bacteria in Yellowstone.
  • 4:20 p.m. — The diversity of the thermo-acidophilic Cyanidiales in Yellowstone, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland and the Philippines.

Saturday, Jan. 12

  • 8:20 a.m. — Insights into biofilm function and variability from environmental genomes and geochemistry.
  • 8:40 a.m. — Comparative metagenomic analysis of Aquificales-dominated YNP hot springs.
  • 9 a.m. — Assessing population level functional diversity in a microbial community by comparative genomic and metagenomic analyses.
  • 9:20 a.m. — Metagenomic approaches to studying the functional diversity of filamentous anoxygenic phototrophs in hot spring microbial mats.
  • 9:40 a.m. — Genetic basis of RubisCO adaptation at the thermal limit of photoautotrophy
  • 10 a.m. — Break.
  • 10:20 a.m. — Candidatus Chloracidobacterium thermophilum: the first chlorophototrophic Acidobacterium
  • 10:40 a.m. — Genomic and metagenomic analysis of Archaeal host and virus populations from Yellowstone’s high temperature acidic environments.
  • 11 a.m. — Using CRISPRs to understand local adaptation in host viral relationships.
  • 11:20 a.m. — A proteomics perspective of stress response in Sulfolobus solfataricus.
  • 11:40 a.m. — Microbial hosts with limited hospitality — a new RNA-based interference system.
  • Noon — Assembly of hot springs viral metagenomes to develop improved DNA polymerases.
  • 12:30 pm. — Lunch. RCN projects and priorities: YNP Metagenomc project

Sunday, Jan. 13

  • 8:20 a.m. — Hydrothermal systems: Islands of microbial diversity.
  • 8:40 a.m. — Metagenomics in a hypersaline microbial mat.
  • 9 a.m. — Microbially-dominated terrestrial hot spring mineral assemblages in Kamchatka Russia.
  • 9:20 a.m. — Geochemistry and microbiology of Great Basin Hot Springs. Are they different from Yellowstone Springs?
  • 9:40 a.m. — Life at the Edge: Halo-alkalithermophiles from sun-heated salt lakes in Egypt.
  • 10 a.m. — Break.
  • 10:30 a.m. — The astrobiology biogeocatalysis Research Center at MSU: The role of iron-sulfur compounds in the transition from the nonliving to the living world.
  • 10:50 a.m. — Bridging geothermal microbiology with the bioenergy program through an integrated “Omics” platform.
  • 11:10 a.m. — 21st century frontiers in microbial genomics and biotechnology.
  • 11:30 a.m. — Closing lunch. Discuss future directions, RCN priorities.