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NDSF user spotlight: Roxanne Beinart on microbes and deep sea science

Portrait of Roxanne Beinart taken by Alex Deciccio.
Roxanne Beinart, photo by Alex Deciccio.

Roxanne Beinart is a professor of biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography. She's been using NDSF vehicles since early in graduate school and is a member of the Deep Submergence Science Committee (DeSSC). We sat down with Beinart to hear about how all three NDSF vehicles enable her research.

What do you study?

I'm a marine microbiologist. I study microbes that are in symbiotic relationships with other organisms-especially those that live at deep-sea hydrothermal vents and cold seeps.

There's not a lot of food available in the deep sea, but at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps there are microbes that can do chemosynthesis-which is like photosynthesis but without sunlight. These animals produce organic matter from the chemical energy that comes out of the vents or cold seeps. Some have evolved to farm bacteria in or on their tissues they can then consume. It's pretty wild. 

How do you use NDSF vehicles?

Most recently I worked with both ROV Jason and AUV Sentry on the same expedition to the Lau Basin near Tonga. We used Jason to collect hydrothermal vent animals and microbes. We also had filtration devices to collect microbes from the fluids on and around the seafloor. And then we used Sentry-outfitted with a plankton sampler known as Sentry Precision Robotic Impeller Driven Sampler or Plankzooka-to collect larvae for my collaborators Drs. Shawn Arellano and Craig Young.

You are also the designated "Friend of Alvin" on the Deep Submergence Science Committee (DeSSC), what does that mean?

My job is to attend the debriefs that happen after every cruise. I am a scientist listening in and reporting back to DeSSC what is going on with that particular vehicle. There is also a Friend of Jason and a Friend of Sentry.

A thriving deep sea community at a hydrothermal vent in the Lau Basin. Photo by ROV Jason, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
A thriving deep sea community at a hydrothermal vent in the Lau Basin. Photo by ROV Jason, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

What do samples from Jason and Sentry tell you about these animals?

The animals we're studying are snails and mussels that look just like ones you'd see near shore, but they have a greatly reduced digestive system. Farming bacteria is clearly lucrative for them. They get to unusually large sizes at incredible densities at hydrothermal vents. We see huge numbers of them covering these areas.

We think that the larvae from these animals don't have the bacteria. They all start out free-floating and disperse, and then if they want to survive, they have to acquire their particular symbiotic bacteria somewhere from the environment.

How did you come to study deep-sea biology?

Through microbes! I think most people get into this field through love of the mystery of the deep. But I came in specifically because the microbial symbiosis I was really interested in happens near hydrothermal vents and cold water seeps. 

I came to love microbes when I was ten. I was given a petri dish at an after-school science program and told I could rub whatever I liked onto it. A week later we put the resulting microbial colonies under a microscope. That is what sold me on microbes: they're this wild and invisible mystery all around us. 

How did you get started using deep-sea vehicles?

I did the DeSSC new-user program pretty early as a graduate student. That was a straightforward way to learn about the vehicles that were available, the scientists using them, and how to write them into proposals. You don't have to be funded with a vehicle to be a potential user and anyone-from undergraduate to early-career professors-can be a part of the new user program. A few years after that I was a remote participant in a DeSSC/NDSF chief scientist training program, where they invited a group of early career scientists to sail on R/V Atlantis for an Alvin mission and learn how to run a cruise as a chief scientist. Now I'm a member of DeSSC and the new user program is really important to me, and to all of us. Bringing new users in is one way we can make the future of deep submergence more inclusive.

Roxanne Beinart holding a deep sea snail. Photo by Michelle Hauer.
Roxanne Beinart holding a deep sea snail. Photo by Michelle Hauer.