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Science Expedition Shares Deep Sea Vents with Students

Scientists and others are going into the deep-sea vents, and they're hoping to bring students along for the ride. Dive and Discover, a Web site that provides research resources related to ocean exploration, has just begun its 15th expedition, this one exploring hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean.

The 14-day journey takes place in the East Pacific Rise, an ocean ridge about 600 miles south of Manzanillo, Mexico. There, the goal is to study single-celled organisms — bacteria and archaea — which in turn support the food needs of shrimp and clams. Because of where they exist, these organisms don't get energy through sunlight; they survive through a process called "chemosynthesis," in which they convert into energy the inorganic chemicals and minerals produced by hydrothermal vent fluids that bubble up from under the ocean floor.

The explorers are aboard a research vessel called the Atlantis, from which pilots remotely control an underwater vessel named Jason. During the expedition, which runs until January 22, the work of scientists, ship crew members, and engineers is being captured in video, photographs and daily written updates that are posted to the Dive and Discover site.

The research team will also use devices that can "suck in" microbes and fluids and maintain them at deep-sea pressure to bring them up to the surface. That will allow scientists to perform experiments on the ship, such as analysis of the DNA, RNA and proteins of the microbes.

"We'll be able to look at the genes of an individual microbe. And if you know how small a microbe is, that's quite a difficult task," said marine chemist Jeff Seewald, a co-principal investigator of the expedition. "Technology now exists that we can look at the genetic material in individual cells, see who is there, and possibly what they're doing on the seafloor."

Teachers and students are invited to share the classroom activities they develop around the exploration. The site also provides explanations of ocean phenomenon related to the work, interactive illustrations to illuminate deep-sea features and animals, and a "Mail Buoy" that lets students communicate by email with the scientists at sea.

According to expedition sponsor The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the work being shared on Expedition 15 fits into multiple parts of the Next Generation Science Standards for grades five through high school. For example, students studying the physical sciences can learn about chemical reactions (PS1B) and energy and chemical processes in everyday life (PS3D). Those studying earth and space sciences can learn about the history of the planet (ESS1C) and biogeology (ESS2E).

The program is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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