Down Deep

Environmentalists Fight to Protect the Fantastic Microscopic Creatures That Dwell on the Ocean’s Bottom

Scientists and dreamers alike have been enthralled by recent discoveries of planets outside our solar system which might harbor life, and speculation that minute specks of life possibly live on Mars.

Later this year, researchers will begin to hunt in earnest for the microscopic Martians, which may be similar to the first forms of terrestrial life on Earth. The scientists might have more success, however, if they stayed on Earth and explored the deep oceans.

In the underwater rifts on Earth live completely undiscovered forms of life so strange that they seem to jump out of a Jules Verne fantasy novel. These creatures live near volcanic vents at the bottom of the deep ocean in totally dark, highly-pressurized, hot and hostile environments. Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist well-known for deep-sea exploration and efforts to protect the ocean environment, says, “I think there’s a perception that we have already explored the sea. The reality is we know more about Mars than we know about the oceans.”

These deep-sea creatures are so peculiar that some of the heat-loving microbes may constitute a third superfamily of life, distinct from that of plants and animals, according to Carl R. Woese of the University of Illinois. The unusual bacteria are able to get their energy from chemicals, as opposed to plants which derive their energy from the sun via photosynthesis.

Exploring with innovative submersibles able to survive extreme pressures several hundred times those found at sea level, scientists have found numerous curiosities, such as unique bacteria which thrive on hydrogen sulfide (poisonous to most other forms of life as we know it) and which live in water so hot (up to 235 degrees Fahrenheit) it is kept from boiling only by the enormous pressures deep in the ocean. More fantastic still is a large tube worm which manages to grow to more than one meter in length without the benefit of either a mouth or a digestive system.

Some scientists liken these creatures, called hyperthermophiles, to the earliest forms of life on Earth. Thomas Gold, a Cornell University scientist, calls this world a “hot, deep biosphere” of bacteria that, in terms of mass, could be bigger than all the animals and plants on or near the surface that biologists spend their time studying.

The story would stop there, a biological fantasy-come-true, except for the complicating factor that there is money to be made. “I can guarantee you that the discoveries [in the deep ocean] beneficial to mankind will far outweigh those of the space program over the next couple of decades,” predicts Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in California. “If we can get to the abyss regularly, there will be immediate payoffs.”

According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, hyperthermophiles are a “goldmine for biotechnology companies, which are isolating, cloning and selling [hyperthermophile] heat-stable enzymes for use in genetic engineering. Profits are already accruing from [these] exotic microbes.” Strategene, a California company, is, for example, studying bacterial enzymes adapted to high temperatures and intense pressures that might be industrially useful.

Another possible industrial use involves the deep sea mussels that thrive on hydrogen sulfide. Experiments by Holger W. Jannasch, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, indicate that the shellfish could efficiently and safely remove waste sulfur generated from almost all mining operations, thereby helping to reduce the formation of acid rain.

A host of legal and ethical questions ensue. Since hyperthermophiles live in deep ocean beds found in international waters, they belong simultaneously to no one and to everyone. Conservationists are concerned that this vast oceanic biodiversity might eventually be threatened by indiscriminate harvesting or by destructive mining operations. And they’ve already sounded an alarm that “bioprospectors” working for pharmaceutical companies are collecting too many organisms from the oceans without any idea of the consequences.

Mary Garson, of the University of Queensland in Australia, says that 98 percent of the marine samples collected are discarded even before any detailed chemical and pharmacological analysis. She notes that a United States bioprospecting group collected 204 pounds of a marine acorn worm just to isolate one milligram of an anticancer compound. In another case, 385 pounds of moray eel liver was used to isolate 0.35 milligrams of ciguatoxin for study. “Just imagine how many moray eels were collected,” Garson says.

Because hyperthermophiles are not likely to generate the passionate lobbying support enjoyed by the charismatic megavertebrates, like whales or elephants, environmentalists feel that they have to work extra hard to protect the rights of these deep sea dwellers.

These tricky questions might be addressed by the ambitious 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty, which deals with such weighty issues as freedom of navigation, mining, fishing, pollution and piracy. However, because of wrangling by the United States and other entrepreneurial powers reluctant to concede lucrative deep-seabed mining opportunities, UNCLOS was tediously renegotiated and only came into force in late 1994, with more than 60 countries as signatories. The controversial heart of UNCLOS is its declaration of the deep seabed outside national jurisdiction as “the common heritage of mankind,” with profits derived from it to be shared by all countries. But when UNCLOS speaks of the “resources” of the deep ocean bed it refers to minerals only. None of the treaty’s founders envisioned giant hydrogen-sulfide-eating worms. But hopes are high that a free for-all in the deep sea bed can be avoided.

Not everyone values UNCLOS. New York Times columnist William Safire considers the treaty to be the handwork of “a collectivist cartel that conflicts with U.S. national interests.”

As yet there is no international convention governing exploitation of Mars, despite the theory—popular in some scientific circles—that life evolved there first. Professor Norman H. Sleep of Stanford University hypothesizes that originally Mars offered a more welcoming environment for life than Earth. Then, other scientists speculate, billions of years ago there might have been a collision between an asteroid and Mars, which could have knocked away microbe-bearing rocks that fell to Earth. The rest, as they say, is history.