New Centre of Excellence 2007:
Getting to the bottom of things
When did life on Earth originate? And how? The Centre for Geobiology is addressing formidable, fundamental questions when turning its attention to the study of the deep sea, the oldest species of rocks on Earth and the organisms at the very bottom of the tree of life.
"All life on Earth gets its energy from the sun." That was what most of us learned at school. Meanwhile, at the end of the 1990s when some researchers from Bergen found microbial life several hundred metres beneath the ocean floor, this elementary truth proved not so true anymore. These organisms do not get their energy from the sun, but from the Earth's crust and mantle.
This and similar discoveries have led scientists the world over to view the origins of life on our planet in a whole new way. The frontiers for the existence of life have been moved. These finds also reinforce the theory that there may be life on other planets.
"Anything can happen!"
For the past 10 years, Professor Rolf-Birger Pedersen has headed a Norwegian initiative to explore the deep biosphere, and he has been instrumental in building up a geobiological research group at the University of Bergen. He is now director of a new Centre of Excellence at the University of Bergen. The Centre is going to delve more deeply into this research. Hopefully, scientists will make new breakthroughs that will enhance our understanding of what took place when life originated.
"Anything can happen in this field of research. When I see how much we have learned about the interaction between geology and biology over the past 10 years, I am very optimistic about the next 10 years", the director remarks. "Although the puzzle is huge, the pieces of the jigsaw are very small, and they must be put together piece by piece. This calls for patience and accuracy", continues Pedersen.
Need new eyes
The Centre for Geobiology will be a meeting place for outstanding scientists from the fields of geology, microbiology, molecular biology and geochemistry. They will be studying the interaction between the biosphere and the geosphere.
In Bergen, geoscientists and biologists have already been cooperating for several years. Now Pedersen is looking forward to being part of these activities and to rearing a whole new generation of scientists who will be examining the issues with fresh new eyes. Pedersen believes that they will be less blinded by disciplinary barriers than has been the case with their older colleagues.
"One of the Centre's objectives is to develop a totally new discipline: geobiology. Little research has been done on the interaction between water, rock, micro-organisms and higher organisms. I believe that many discoveries will be made in the interface between these subjects", he says.
"This large-scale focus on interdisciplinary cooperation would never have evolved without the Centre of Excellence scheme", maintains Pedersen. "The Centre is also a tribute to the long-term build up of robust research communities in microbiology and geology, but it is demanding and costly to establish an interdisciplinary group. For example, the Centre currently has some very expensive lab equipment on its shopping list."
In deep water
Meanwhile, the researchers' largest laboratory will be at the bottom of the deepest waters of the North Atlantic.
Here, along the volcanoes that dot the mid-Atlantic ridge between Iceland and Svalbard, Rolf-Birger Pedersen first went down to a depth of 3500 metres in summer 1998. He was the first scientist to reach such a depth in this area. The Russian submarine was equipped with grapples that allowed him to collect numerous samples, including samples of lava. He took them home to Bergen, where the material was also examined by eager microbiologists. Imagine their surprise when they put the lava under the microscope and found life! Using DNA analyses, they were able to ascertain that they had found bacteria. Some of the microbes live on hydrogen and some on methane, while others live on the iron in the volcanic rock.
In 2005, Pedersen and his colleagues made new dives, this time north of Jan Mayen and using an ROV (remotely operated vehicle). There, they made yet another unexpected discovery: The ROV suddenly glided into a forest of 5- to 10-metre tall 'chimneys'. Vents of very hot water at temperatures approaching 300 degrees spouted out of these chimneys.
New dives were made in summer 2007, this time west of Bear Island, to search for more hot springs. The researchers were not so lucky this time. "We took samples of seawater and could see that there were hot springs nearby, but we could not manage to locate them. This is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It is pitch dark at all depths of more than one hundred metres", recounts Pedersen.
Life created an oxygen-rich atmosphere
The hot springs are especially interesting. Many of the micro-organisms found near the roots of the tree of life thrive on heat. These micro-organisms live on the hydrogen and methane that can be formed by reactions between water and minerals. Pedersen and his colleagues believe that these subsea hot springs may furnish valuable pieces to the puzzle about the origin of life.
"These are indications that there was life on Earth as early as 3.8 billion years ago. Life prospered, modifying the environment and leading, among other things, to oxygen enrichment of the atmosphere.
Scientists from the Geological Survey of Norway and the Centre for Geobiology are currently in the process of concluding a large-scale drilling programme on the Kola Peninsula. They have drilled through 2.5 billion-year-old rock that was deposited at a time when the oxygen content of the atmosphere was increasing dramatically. The core samples will now be analysed to determine which environmental changes took place during this crucial phase of the earth's development. In a few years, the Centre is also planning to engage in test drilling in South Africa. We will drill through one of the oldest rock formations on Earth to search for traces of early life and to find out what the environment was like at that time. Basically, this is climate research over an exceptionally long time scale", Pedersen elaborates.
Even though those who took part in the voyage in summer 2007 did not manage to locate new hot springs, the excursion was far from a failure. For example, the researchers discovered a subsea volcanic peak that rose from a depth of 3500 metres to just 500 metres under the ocean surface. They found extraordinarily rich life on this subsea mountain, which may turn out to be a treasure trove for bioprospecting. Biologists are finding the large variety of sponges especially interesting.
"The sponges contain chemical compounds which may be of pharmaceutical interest. For example, they contain ingredients that appear to be able to impede cell division. We have sponge specialists at the Centre, and they will explore this material further. This is a very cogent demonstration of how basic research, the very essence of this Centre, can lead to discoveries that of great importance in terms of applications.Centre for Biogeology (CGB)
Objective: Develop new, fundamental knowledge about the interaction between the geo-biosphere and the origins of life.
Participants: Department of Earth Science, Department of Molecular Biology and Department of Chemistry at the University of Bergen.
Annual allocation: MNOK 10 from the Research Council
Number of full-time positions: 23
Point of contact: Professor Rolf-Birger Pedersen
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