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UCSB scientists probe sea floor venting to gain understanding of early life on Earth

New keys to understanding the evolution of life on Earth may be found in the microbes and minerals vented from below the ocean floor, say scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The UCSB scientists are making new contributions to this field of inquiry in their studies of seafloor hydrothermal fluid discharge into the Earth's oceans, which has been occurring ever since the oceans first formed four billion years ago. Conditions below the sea floor may most closely mimic the environment when life began.

"There is a great deal of interest in the microbes of the Earth's crust because the strategies by which they survive may be similar to the earliest strategies of life on Earth, and perhaps also on other planetary bodies," said Rachel M. Haymon, UCSB professor of geology.

Newly discovered geological and biological manifestations of hydrothermal activity at two sites on the sea floor to the west of Central America are reported by Haymon, lead author, and three other UCSB geologists in the February issue of the journal, Geology.

The discovery of deep sea hot springs and an abundance of microbes in the subseafloor are among the most remarkable scientific findings in Earth science during the latter half of the twentieth century, and have now become a powerful motivation for research and exploration, according to the National Science Foundation, a major funder of this work. The NSF explains that subseafloor ecosystems may represent both the cradle of life on Earth and a model for the exploration and discovery of life on other planets.

"We are highly conscious of the importance of microbes in the grand scheme of things," said Haymon. "Indeed, they are the greatest biomass on the planet. They are strongly implicated as the earliest life here and perhaps elsewhere."

The direct linkages between life and planetary processes on the volcanically active, deep-sea, mid-ocean ridge system can only be understood through t
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Source:University of California - Santa Barbara


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