To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before (On Planet Earth)

by Jennifer Frazer on June 23, 2009

Today I give a Pseudopod Salute to ocean explorer Bob Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, who gave one of the best plain English explanations of tube worms and the importance of ocean research to Stephen Colbert back in February I have ever heard, and seems like a genuinely nice guy to boot:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Robert Ballard
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Stephen Colbert in Iraq

And what is the most important underwater discovery Ballard’s helped make? Not the Titanic. “The new life forms we found.” Amen, brother!

The life forms in question include the famous Riftia pachyptila, or giant tube worm. Riftia does indeed have “human-like blood” containing hemoglobins similar to ours but also able to bind oxygen in the presence of sulfur (which can be the tube worm bacterial partner’s food), something that would kill most of the rest of the hemoglobin-using world.

Giant tube worms are also among the longest-lived animals on Earth, capable of living over 200 years. They’re in the same phylum as earthworms — Annelida — who also have hemoglobin containing blood. Riftia has tube worm relatives that live shallower in the sea, too. But don’t get the impression these are the only deep-sea worms we’ve found. There are many species adapted to feed on differing parts of the veritable all-you-can-filter buffet of chemicals that ooze, squirt, or jet from the ocean floor.

Take, for instance, Lamellibrachia luymesi, a tube worm that lives in the Gulf of Mexico around cold oil and methane seeps.

Photo/Charles Fisher, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License. Click for link.

Lamellibrachia luymesi. Photo/Charles Fisher, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License. Click for link.

Since it lives at colder temperatures (and is less likely than Riftia to get wiped out by a sudden devastating change in the hydrothermal vent plumbing or an underwater eruption), it lives even longer — and may even hold the world animal longevity title at over 250 years of age.

Now I know a lot of my friends are space nuts who love NASA. Who doesn’t love NASA? But I must echo Ballard: NASA’s one year budget to go to places where life doesn’t even exist (most likely) would pay for 1600 years of NOAA research. It just ain’t fair! Think about it: we’d been to the moon for 10 years before we even knew “black smokers” and Riftia communties that live totally independently of the sun existed. What is wrong with that picture? Couldn’t we do a little better for NOAA?

Any lawmakers who might be reading this blog, take note: studying Earth is just as (if not more) important as studying other planets. We live here! And what’s more, weird, wonderful life waits for us in countless crannies, and many of said crannies are under the sea. Let’s go there (and let’s line item one of these for Jen, so she can go there too. : ).

Discovered via Deep Sea News.

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What About the Tube Worms?
June 22, 2010 at 10:21 pm

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