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Deep-sea access is more important than ever

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Postdoctoral Fellow Bonnie Teece working with a major water sampler after a Jason dive. These samplers, invented after the discovery of hydrothermal vents, are capable of sampling vent fluid are places where water temperatures in exceed 400°C. (Photo by Hannah Piecuch, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Q&A with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Postdoctoral Fellow Bonnie Teece on her first expedition with ROV Jason


Bonnie Teece is a postdoctoral fellow at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She joined PROTATAX23 to recover previously deployed microbe-mineral incubation experiments in the ASHES hydrothermal vent field.

What do you study?

I study fossilized hydrothermal systems, some that were on land and some that were originally under the sea that we estimate to be up to 3.5 billion years old. I study active vents too, and this is the first time I've studied them at sea.

Where I work in the Outback-which is what we call the remote desert-like environments where I'm from in Australia-the place where we find these preserved vent systems is called the Pilbara. It's this incredibly beautiful, dry, red, dusty place that's a two-hour drive to the nearest town. And it's hard when you're out there to imagine that, billions of years ago, this was a system under the sea, like the ones we're exploring with remotely operated vehicle Jason right now.

 What was it like seeing your first Jason dive?

I knew it was something I'll remember for the rest of my life. On my first watch in the Jason control van, I was thinking that it must be very similar to how people watch a rover being operated on Mars. The deep ocean is a difficult place to explore, and we know so little about it. Being able to have this insight into a place so few people get to experience is really special.

I was amazed by how the Jason Team worked together to solve problems. There was a tube wrapped around an instrument and they had to loosen it to get it out. It's something I'd barely be able to do on land and they are doing it under the ocean. I was also thinking a lot about the organisms that live in the deep sea and the adaptations these tiny little limpets and need to exist, even though it is our same world. It's mind-boggling.

How are you using ROV Jason on this expedition?

We are collecting microbial traps that we left near hydrothermal vents. We sent down four different kinds of minerals to see what kinds of microorganisms grew on them:

  • Basalt, which is an igneous rock produced from lava.
  • Pyrite, which is a sulfur-rich mineral often found at hydrothermal vents, but also associated with the oldest generally accepted evidence for life on Earth.
  • Serpentinite, which is an alteration mineral that is produced in hydrothermal vent areas when olivine is altered by water-places like the vents at Lost City are fueled by that process.
  • Chondrite, which is a mineral that some meteorites are made from. It's also what we think the core of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, is made of. Enceladus was recently found to have a big plume that came out of its "tiger stripe region," scientists think hydrothermal vents on Enceladus might be in that area.

We also sent some glass beads down as controls to see what would grow on just glass without the nutrients found in the minerals. The idea is to see what microbes colonized the traps. I'll also test some instruments on them using several kinds of spectroscopy to find out how the microbes might have altered the rocks.

This cutaway view of Saturn's moon Enceladus is an artist's rendering that depicts possible hydrothermal activity that may take place on and under the seafloor of the moon's subsurface ocean and that, like Earth, could support life. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via NPR)

How does access to a vehicle like Jason impact your scientific work?

Over the last few days, I've been thinking about how sad it is that the U.S. drill ship JOIDES Resolution is being discontinued as part of the International Ocean Drilling Program. It means less access to a lot of the hard-to-reach areas of the seafloor, which holds a lot of the geological history of Earth. Unless we can get there, we're missing so much of our own history, as well as the analogs to other planets and moons.

Vehicles like Jason and Alvin have enabled us to see a side of life we wouldn't otherwise see. The discovery of hydrothermal vents changed scientific fields and resulted in a multi-disciplinary paradigm shift. It's caused us to rethink the early Earth and where we might look for life on other planets. It's so important to have vehicles like this to access the deep sea.

-Hannah Piecuch

This NDSF blog series will follow the PROTATAX23 expedition to Axial Seamount, covering the science and scientists at sea, and the ROV Jason operations that make it possible. PROTATAX23 is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF OCE Award #1947776).