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Microbial communities at underwater volcano

Mar. 19, 2013 — Hawaii was created by underwater volcanoes that gradually built upwards during eruptions until they popped out above the ocean. The next island to form is waiting 3,000 feet underwater as a seamount named Loihi, which occasionally rumbles out earthquakes and should surface hundreds of thousands of years from now.

Until then, Loihi’s inhabitants are not hula girls and hibiscus flowers, but rather bacteria and other microbes. The University of Delaware’s Clara Chan, assistant professor of geological sciences in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, and graduate student Sean McAllister are on a 17-day research cruise there to study these microbial communities and their roles in this unusual setting.

Chan and her colleagues are aboard the research vessel Thomas G. Thompson to retrieve samples from pulpy, orange, bacteria-laden mats that grow at near hydrothermal vents, or cracks in the seamount where heat and chemicals are released from within the earth. The bacteria produce the mats as they consume iron and excrete a rusty waste product.

The scientists are using the remotely operated vehicle Jason II to suck up the microbes with a slurp gun and bring them back up to the ship for analysis.

Chan previously traveled to the site in 2006 and 2008 with a team that discovered these iron-oxidizing bacteria, or Zetaproteobacteria, were present and active. Since then, the microbes have been found in coastal saltmarshes, corroding steel and deep-ocean crust.