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Microorganisms inhabiting Submarine Volcanoes

Submarine volcanoes

Submarine volcanoes occur most commonly at the margins of tectonic plates and host diverse biological systems. The fluids emanating from hydrothermal vents on submarine volcanoes are rich in dissolved metals and gases, which support the growth of microorganisms. Larger macro-organisms such as shrimp, barnacles, tube worms, crabs and fish then graze the microbial populations forming, a complex food web.

However, life around hydrothermal vents is not easy. The fluid temperatures leaving the vents often are in excess of 300ºC (>572ºF) and pressures can be >200 atmospheres. Yet microorganisms are able flourish at these vents. Thermophiles (microorganisms that can live at temperatures in excess of 60ºC) thrive on the margins of these vents and one particular hyperthermophile, Pyrolobus fumarii, grows at a maximum temperature of 113ºC and stops growing at temperatures below 90ºC.

New Zealand has a large number of submarine volcanoes all supporting a rich variety of macro- and microorganisms. New Zealand is situated at the margin between two colliding tectonic plates, the action of which has caused the formation of >70 submarine volcanoes in a 1,220km stretch of ocean north of New Zealand’s North Island, known as the Kermadec Arc. Manned submarines have been used to investigate how these volcanoes form, the chemistry of the hydrothermal fluids and biology these vents support.

Microbiologists at GNS Science are interested in the types of microorganisms that inhabit these vents (especially the heat-loving microbes), what dissolved gases and metals they use for growth and whether or not there are any microbial types unique to New Zealand waters. Researchers use molecular DNA and classical culturing techniques to study the microbial diversity of hydrothermal vents on submarine volcanoes.

Microbial ecology data collected from such sites is then used to in conjugation with geochemical and geological information to piece together a picture of how these ecosystems function and possibly give an insight into what scientists think life on the primeval Earth may have been like.

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Examples of our findings include:

This research project is undertaken in collaboration with researchers at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. Samples were collected on 2 expeditions to the Kermadec Arc with JAMSTEC (SWEEP VENTS) and NOAA (SRoF ’05).