Strange creatures lurking on floor of Atlantic may hold clues to origin of life


CLUES AS to how life began on the planet may be gleaned from the volcanic vent system which Irish and British scientists have discovered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Several unusual species, including a blind shrimp with an infrared “third eye”, were identified on the deep-sea mineral-rich volcanic field some 1,500km off the Irish coast.

This shrimp has been located on other vent systems, but biologists will analyse data to see if hitherto unidentified animals can be confirmed, expedition leader Dr Andy Wheeler of University College Cork, said yesterday.

The new biogeographical area, well outside Irish waters, has been named “Moytirra”, or “plain of the pillars”, after a battlefield in Irish mythology. It is the first such hydrothermal system to be identified between the Azores and Iceland, lying on the mid-Atlantic ridge where Europe separates from the Americas.

The largest of its volcanic chimneys, towering over 10m at the foot of a cliff, has been named “Balor” after the legendary Irish giant, according to Patrick Collins from NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute, who led Ireland’s marine biological team on board.

Mr Collins will be working with Jon Copley of the University of Southampton to catalogue and characterise creatures among a “riot of life”, as Mr Copley describes it, in an “unlikely haven on the ocean floor”. The first indication of this system on the mid-Atlantic ridge was detected by British scientists with the national oceanography centre at University of Southampton three years ago.

Hydrothermal vents are fissures or cracks in the earth’s surface, funnelling enormous volumes of boiling sea water enriched with minerals from volcanic sources through chimneys or “black smokers”. The complex communities they support thrive on chemosynthesis, totally independent of sunlight.

The first such vents were discovered in the eastern Pacific about 30 years ago, and some 500 new faunal species have been recorded in six biogeographical provinces charted to date.

Scientists from Southampton teamed up with researchers at UCC, NUIG, and the Geological Survey of Ireland to find out more, and left Galway last month on the State research ship, Celtic Explorer, with the support of the Marine Institute and the National Geographic Society.

Dr Wheeler said that the team found the edge of the vent field some 3,000m below, using the ship’s remotely operated vehicle, within only two hours of arriving at the location.

Such was the heat of the chimneys’ water, at 350 degrees, that scientists had to use titanium syringes to extract samples.

“These animals are living in a harsh, toxic, acidic environment full of heavy metals – a place that would usually kills other organisms so the enzymes generated in their bodies may have potential for medical research. The discovery could also be very important for Ireland’s hydrothermal mining industry,” Dr Wheeler said.

Dr Bramley Murton of the British oceanography centre, who led the mineralisation study on the expedition, said the unique environment was one where “geology and biology have come together to form something as close to extraterrestrial life as we get on this planet”. National Geographic filmed the work for inclusion in its Alien Deep series, due to be broadcast in 2012.

Speaking on the Celtic Explorer yesterday, Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney paid tribute to all involved. Among the team on board was geological survey geologist Maria Judge who last year piloted the remote controlled subsea vehicle on board the James Cook vessel which discovered the world’s deepest known hydrothermal vents on the Caribbean’s Cayman trough.

As part of this new project, secondary school students were invited to design their own deep sea creature. The winner may have one of the new species at the vents named after him or her.