RWE Dea: Boetius Explains Her Extreme Depths Research

Boetius Explains Her Extreme Depths Research

RWE Dea talked to Prof. Antje Boetius, deep-sea research scientist and professor of geomicrobiology at Bremen University, about extreme depths and eternal darkness, on which Boetius has conducted research work that looks into the question of how life is even possible under such circumstances and what parameters it is influenced by.

This is also of interest to RWE Dea since oil and gas exploration and production operations are taking place in increasingly remote corners of the earth.

In an interview with Prof Boetius, she explained that what is fascinating about the deep sea is that it is a habitat characterised by an extreme shortage of energy. At depths below 200 metres there is no sunlight and no plant life. Yet it sparkles and twinkles quite fantastically down there and unbelievable creatures that have perfectly adapted to these extreme conditions can be found.

Unfortunately, manned dives in deep-sea submarines are more or less a thing of the past. Nowadays, it is mainly robots that are used because they are much more efficient. They can dive for 48 hours whereas human beings need 2½ hours before they reach the seabed, can work there for another 2½ hours and then have to return to the surface. But the trouble is that a robot is attached to a cable, which makes it inflexible. That’s where a deep-sea submarine offers obvious advantages,Boetius said about these dives.

A day at sea can cost up to €150,000 – and that only covers the cost of the equipment. That’s why I need around €2-3 million a year for my research work.

When asked whether they bring any creatures back up to the surface, Boetius said that is not possible because they wouldn’t survive the extreme drop in pressure. However, given that bacteria manage to adapt, they have a whole archive full of samples of very different deep-sea bacterial colonies.

Boetius stated that so little is known about the deep sea “because humankind cannot leave his footprint down there…Everything at depths between 4,000 and 11,000 metres, i.e. 60% of the earth’s surface, remains hidden to us. At the same time, the deep-sea regions account for more than 90% of the inhabited parts of the earth. The creatures living there make up 60% of all the earth’s species and between 1 and 10 million different kinds of creatures live in the earth’s oceans. It is this wealth of life that enthrals me. We must protect it, not least because marine diversity may well prove highly beneficial for mankind in future.

Down in the depths of the oceans there are creatures that have incorporated bacteria into their cells and that enables them to absorb methane one day and hydrogen the next. There are mussels that can simply switch from one to another. We don’t know how they manage to absorb only good bacteria and no pathogens. But this could be very interesting for medical research and in developing cancer treatments, anti-allergens and antibiotics. We can use these organisms to find out what the body can remember and how.

Innumerable bacteria live in the mud of the seabed. They have totally adapted to their surroundings and can live to the ripe old age of over 500 years! Every teaspoon of ocean sediment contains 2,000 different species of microorganisms. You also find crustaceans, fish and sponges in the deep sea, but the most common creatures are sea cucumbers. They too have adapted perfectly – they have no eyes but very creative flight behaviour: some of them, when attacked, disgorge their innards to distract the enemy and then go on to recreate them.”

Boetius added that these creatures live on the “so-called “sea snow” – dead algae that sink to the seabed”, and because of food shortages, they “lie in wait for prey.”

Boetius explained why they are interested in mud volcanoes: “Mud volcanoes are where mud, fluids and gas come up at great pressure from depths of 2,000 metres under the seabed. Bacteria make use of this source of energy, gather in greater numbers close to mud volcanoes and thus make that habitat attractive for a wide variety of creatures. That’s what fascinates me. There are bacteria that live off nothing but methane. When a bit of the seabed has been churned up after a gas eruption, these methane eaters are no longer present – and the methane gas can freely escape from the seabed for up to six months. This dynamism is an extremely exciting research field.

April 5, 2013