The Lab Of Peter Girguis

Giant tubeworms take up chemicals from a hydrothermal vent 6,200 feet deep in the Gulf of California (the Girguis lab is world-renowned for research on these worms). Photograph courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute

Our thanks to Veronique Greenwood (after a few years’ absence from our notice) for her most recent article in Harvard Magazine:

Top: a remote dive at Emery Knoll, a deepwater reef off Southern California, reveals crabs, sponges, and corals. Bottom: a rare sighting of the massive seven-arm octopus, Haliphron atlanticus. Photographs courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute

Peter Girguis on terra firma in the lab. Photograph by Jim Harrison

Plumbing the Deep Sea

Peter Girguis probes life on the ocean floor

In a cavernous underground space behind Harvard’s Biological Laboratories, biochemist Peter Girguis frowns at the pressure vessel in his hand. The machined titanium cylinder, about the size of a French press, gleams as he works to release the cap, and he chuckles at his own stubbornness. He could probably find a tool to loosen it, he remarks. But Girguis has a calm self-assurance around physical objects more characteristic of aircraft mechanics in overalls than biochemists. With a flick of his wrist, the cap is out. The walls of the vessel turn out to be nearly an inch thick, the space inside about the size of a jam jar. This summer it will become home to a species of deep-sea snail scooped up by a remotely operated vehicle three miles down, where the pressure is about 3,200 pounds per square inch. The pressure on the surface is a mere 15 pounds per square inch—comfortable for humans, but inhospitable to creatures from the deeps—so on their research ship, Girguis and his colleagues have about 45 minutes to re-create the deep-sea pressure in the vessel and fill it with hydrogen sulfide, oxygen, and other essentials before the snail starts to die. Once they stabilize the conditions in the vessel, they have a compact, nearly intact fragment of an ecosystem so far removed from our own that, for a long time, there were few ways to study it directly.

Girguis, professor of organismal and evolutionary biology, has spent nearly three decades working to understand the communities that gather at hydrothermal vents. Around fissures in the ocean floor where these geysers of hot, acrid water fume out, strange life makes its home: snails with iron-sided feet, tubeworms that digest hydrogen sulfide, bacteria that live within such creatures or on their own on the seafloor. The pressure vessels and the systems that keep them running, along with other tools Girguis helped invent, have contributed to his renown as one of the ocean’s most creative researchers. With them, he explores how deep-sea organisms can live off the energy contained in rocks, how they manage to fix carbon as efficiently as plants, and what that means for life on this planet and elsewhere in the solar system.

This summer, Girguis and his crew will take the pressure vessels out to sea in a new portable lab, a shipping container stuffed with equipment and secured to the deck of the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research ship. July and August will find them off the coast of Costa Rica and farther south, in the Galapagos, where the ocean floor roils with hydrothermal vents, plumbing the void.

Read the whole article here.

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