Researchers from the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) have embarked aboard the world's largest scientific drillship on a voyage to understand the abundance and diversity of these microbes and the environments in which they live.
"The implications of this mission are exciting," said Jack Baldauf, deputy director of ODP at Texas A&M University, science operator for the program. "Earlier voyages have found specimens of these bacteria at depths of up to 800 meters below the sea floor, and we estimate that they may number between 10 and 30 percent of the Earth's biota. That means that the biosphere is larger than previously thought - it doesn't just stop at the sea floor."
Other expeditions have obtained samples of these bacteria, but little is known as yet about their real numbers, their diversity, or their role in the biogeochemistry of the oceans.
"It's like walking into a tropical rainforest for the first time and beginning to identify and count the birds," said Tom Davies, manager of ODP science operations at Texas A&M. "This type of microbiology is a new science field for ODP. Such research raises questions about the presence of life in extreme environments on this planet and possibly other planets."
The drillship JOIDES Resolution is scheduled to depart for ODP Leg 201 Feb. 1 from San Diego, Calif. to core sites in the eastern equatorial and southeast Pacific. Cores containing microbes will be sampled from previously drilled sites, chosen to represent different subsurface environments, such as methane rich and normal oceanic environments.