Caltech geobiologist and MacArthur Fellow Victoria Orphan sheds light on the tiny single-celled organisms that help keep Earth’s climate in check.
NASA is exploring a deep-sea volcano off the coast of Hawaii as a test run for human and robotic missions to Mars and beyond. The mission, dubbed SUBSEA, or Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog, will examine microbial life on the Lō`ihi seamount. The mission has two objectives. The first is to learn about the operational and communication challenges of a real space mission through a deep ocean dive. A team of operations specialists and scientists at the University of Rhode Island’s Inner Space Center will serve as ‘mission control,’ while scientists on the Nautilus ship operating a deep ocean robot will stand in for astronauts orbiting Mars, controlling a surface rover. The second goal of the SUBSEA mission is to learn more about the geology and chemistry that support life in the deep ocean, as a glimpse of what alien life might require in places like the oceans of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. In this segment, NASA geobiologist and SUBSEA principal investigator Darlene Lim, oceanographer Julie Huber and volcanologist Shannon Kobs-Nawotniak join Ira to explain this hunt for weird life in the oceans—and what it could teach us about the search for life in space.
Geobiologist Victoria Orphan stands at the stern of the research vessel Western Flyer, watching her colleagues put the last touches on an unusual spread. Among the offerings: a large turkey leg, an alligator head and bowls of gelatinous agar that resemble consomme. This meal isn’t for the ship’s crew, though. It’s bait. The microbial denizens of Monterey Canyon are far different from many of their surface-dwelling brethren. They make food out of rocks and dead debris and harvest energy from methane that seeps from the ocean floor. To survive in this dark, high-pressure, low-oxygen, low-nutrient environment, they form all kinds of cooperative relationships.
Featuring C-DEBI scientist Victoria Orphan
Victoria Orphan has a problem. The geobiologist wants to understand how tiny microorganisms interact with their physical environment. But the organisms she wants to study are not exactly easy to access: They live on the ocean floor. Orphan’s quest to study those elusive microbes has taken her deep into one of Earth’s last frontiers — and her latest frontier is life as a MacArthur grant winner.
There are compelling reasons for studying archaea and bacteria at the bottom of the sea. Both kinds of organisms play a fundamental role in gobbling up methane, a greenhouse gas that gets trapped at the bottom of the ocean in the form of an ice-like substance. Those substances, called methane hydrates, dissolve when ocean pressure or temperature changes. Given the expected effects of climate change on ocean temperature, large amounts of trapped methane could one day make their way into the atmosphere, warming it even more.