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  • Hydrothermal vents are kind of like going to another planet.

  • It's hot, and acidic, and there's big black plumes of chimneys coming out

  • of the bottom of the ocean, that can be up to 50 meters tall.

  • They're essentially underwater volcanoes.

  • They can be beautiful and sparkly, or they can just look like melting old styrofoam.

  • They're usually covered with these amazing, huge, beautiful animals

  • that are just... nothing like you've ever seen before.

  • In the deep sea, photosynthesis is impossible.

  • Instead, this alien food chain is built off of chemosynthesis, where microbes metabolize

  • harsh chemicals, and in turn are fed on, or used by, larger animals.

  • Because there is no sunlight, everything is reliant on the chemicals

  • coming out of the bottom of the ocean, and chemosynthetic bacteria.

  • Either the animals all graze the bacteria or they live symbiotically with the bacteria.

  • The bacteria break down the chemicals and then feed the animals.

  • The model is probably similar to the origins of life.

  • It is nearly impossible to locate and investigate hydrothermal vents,

  • because they occur so deep in the ocean, and emit an acidic soup of chemicals

  • that would be toxic to a diver.

  • So instead, Shannon and her team at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

  • first send an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, called an AUV.

  • It really does look like what James Bond had as a torpedo, but it's just a really cool

  • piece of scientific equipment that does all the hard work for us.

  • We send the fleet of AUVs out to map the bottom first, and then that gives us

  • a really good, high-resolution picture of the bottom of the ocean.

  • Then, it's time to use the ROVs, or Remotely Operated Vehicles, to collect data on water chemistry,

  • temperature, and to bring back specimens.

  • When you collect the animals, they're changing chemistry, temperature, light, everything.

  • Their proteins are pretty much unfolding, and they're pretty unhappy by the time we see them.

  • We have what we call Bio Box: basically a closing box so that when you collect the animals,

  • you can put them in kind of their environment and bring them back to the surface.

  • Once the specimens make it back to the lab, Shannon uses advanced techniques to sequence

  • their genomes and identify them, which is not always possible with the naked eye.

  • There's a lot of "cryptic speciation" in the deep sea:

  • things will look very similar, and they'll be wildly different species,

  • or things can look very different, and it turns out it's just a different life stage.

  • When Shannon and her team have identified the animals, which often turn out to be

  • species brand new to science, they compare the different vent sites

  • to determine whether these organisms are traveling between vents,

  • or stay isolated in one place.

  • A hydrothermal vent is a really great place to study population genetics because

  • it's essentially a giant island of food in the ocean; the next island of food

  • could be hundreds of kilometers away.

  • And so we try to use the genetics of animals to understand how those two islands are connected.

  • Understanding how these different sites are connected helps paint a broad picture of evolution in action.

  • When vents were first discovered, we thought that these were the living relics, the living fossils

  • that started life on Earth, because of chemosynthesis.

  • Using genetics, we now know that most of the animals are relatively young,

  • much younger than the shallow water species.

  • The theory is still right; the model is probably similar to the origins of life.

  • In fact, NASA has a really cool program to look at life on other planets,

  • and how chemosynthesis could help that evolve.

  • Recently, astronomers have been intrigued by Saturn's harsh and icy moon, Enceladus,

  • and hypothesized, aided by NASA's Cassini, that it may actually be home

  • to hydrothermal vents of its own.

  • After recent experiments in Austria and Germany, scientists now believe that the life from

  • these hydrothermal vents on Earth could actually survive and thrive on Enceladus.

  • But understanding how these mysterious ecosystems work is a race against time.

  • Hydrothermal vents are sensitive to deep-sea mining, and often are in international waters,

  • making them difficult to protect.

  • They're also sensitive to oxygen levels.

  • The deep sea is probably more sensitive to the extinctions that killed off the dinosaurs, for example,

  • because the oxygen levels dropped throughout the world and throughout the world ocean.

  • When we first started working on this, we thought, "Oh, these things are going to be

  • the poster child for what animals can evolve to and survive in climate change."

  • But it turns out the minute the oxygen levels dip just a little bit, everything dies.

  • Despite their hardcore reputation, extremophiles may not be as resilient as we thought

  • something to keep in mind as we continue to explore other planetsand our own.

  • We're very, very privileged to be able to visit these environments.

  • We've only scratched the surface of exploring these vents.

  • More often than not, we'll find new species, new discoveries, new vent sites that are amazing,

  • and nothing we could've planned for.

  • For more episodes of Science in the Extremes, check out this one right here.

  • Don't forget to subscribe, and come back to Seeker for more episodes.

  • Thanks for watching!

Hydrothermal vents are kind of like going to another planet.

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