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Hydrothermal Vent Basics

Updated on October 24, 2015

Environmental conditions necessary for life to survive and propagate are traditionally thought to be very rare in the Universe. Even on Earth, there are areas too hostile to support carbon-based life. The depths of the open ocean were once thought to be dark, barren wastelands, incapable of hosting any type of biological community. In 1977, at a depth of approximately 2500 meters scientists discovered a complex ecosystem manifesting itself at a hydrothermal vent site along the Galapagos Spreading Center. Multitudes of organisms were found surviving and flourishing in areas once thought incapable of supporting life (Bachraty et el 2009). By adapting their metabolic pathways, physiology and ecology to accommodate for the harsh conditions, many organisms have evolved metabolic mechanisms, symbiotic relationships or other methods of efficiently utilizing the available resources (Van Dover et el 2002, Glowka 2003).

Only approximately 100 active hydrothermal vent sites have been identified, but it is thought that there could be thousands that remain unknown (Glowka 2003). The potential knowledge the unmapped regions of the ocean may contain is incalculable. Eight hundred new species have been identified since the discovery of hydrothermal vents, approximately 80 percent of which are endemic to this unique habitat. Many previously unknown bacteria and single-celled organisms have been found at vent sites, and the possible pharmacological and environmental utility humans could gain from these organisms has yet to be studied.

Chemosynthetic environments also serve as possible pockets of refuge from global mass extinction events. Some endemic vent species demonstrate ancestral traits, suggesting that they could be of great importance in understanding taxonomic relationships throughout the history of evolution. (Bachraty et el 2009, Van Dover et el 2002, Thiel & Koslow 2001). Hydrothermal vent habitats are the first complex ecosystems discovered to date that are based primarily on microbial chemoautotrophic production, and their discovery is often regarded as one of the most important advances in biological science in the latter half of the twentieth century (Glowka 2003).

Thanks for Reading! Literature Consulted:

Bachraty, C., P. Legendre and D. Desbruyeres. “Biogeographic Relationships Among Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vent Fauna at Global Scale.” Deep Sea Research . 56 (2009): 1371-1378.

Glowka, L. “Putting Marine Scientific Research on a Sustainable Footing at Hydrothermal Vents.” Marine Policy . 27.4 (2003): 303-312.

Thiel, H. and A. Koslow, eds. Managing Risks to Biodiversity and the Environment on the High Sea, Including Tools Such as Marine Protected Areas- Scientific Requirements and Legal Aspects . 27 Feb 2001, Isle of Vilm, Germany. German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, 2001. Print.

Van Dover, C., C. German, K. Speer, L. Parson, and R. Vrijenhoek. “Evolution and Biogeography of Deep-Sea Methane Vent and Seep Invertebrates.” Science . 295 (2002): 1253-1257.


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