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Researchers pinpoint how tubeworm babies are dispersed to colonize new vent sites

Travel to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, plunge two miles to the seafloor near an underwater volcano,release a strawberry seed in the pitch darkness, and figure out where it will land.

That sort of sums up the task that faced University of Delaware marine biochemist Adam Marsh and his colleagues in their quest to determine how new tubeworm colonies are formed at hydrothermal vent sites. The findings are reported in the May 3 issue of Nature.

Hydrothermal vents are very ephemeral. These underwater volcanoes appear as the ocean floor spreads, and then they rapidly disappear, says Marsh. Scientists have often wondered how tubeworms, which are sessile creatures and cant move about the seafloor, wind up at new vent sites.

The key to solving the mystery is the dispersal of their young, which are about as big as strawberry seeds, Marsh notes. Where these tiny larvae go is determined by the deep-sea currents and the larvaes life span which sets a maximum time limit for them to travel between vent sites and survive.

To find out how long a journey baby tubeworms can survive, the scientists first had to figure out how to culture them in the lab. Stainless steel chambers with continuously flowing seawater were specially designed to re-create the larvaes natural environment of 2C (35F) and crushing pressure of nearly 3,700 pounds per square inch.

With the exception of hydrothermal vents, most of the deep ocean is only a few degrees above freezing, Marsh explains. Tubeworm larvae must withstand these cold temperatures as they are dispersed by the currents, hopefully to a home in warmer water near a vent site.

The scientists found that tubeworm larvae do not develop a mouth in the first 34 days of development, so they cant obtain energy from food during this period to help them weather their ride on the currents.Instead, they must rely on an internal fuel supply. To determine how much en
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Contact: Tracey Bryant
tbryant@udel.edu
302-831-8185
University of Delaware
1-May-2001


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