Originally created 07/21/98

Sulfide chimneys ooze with underwater life forms



SEATTLE -- One-and-a-half miles under the Pacific Ocean, scientists have recovered chimneys of the sea -- specimens oozing with exotic life forms that could hold clues to life on other planets.

The sections of sulfide chimneys taken from the ocean floor, revealed by scientists at the University of Washington on Saturday, are also known as black smokers after the clouds of inky water they spew. They are usually formed along volcanically active midocean ridges where new ocean crust is created.

"It was an expedition to one of the last frontiers of the earth to explore one of the farthest, most extreme environments where life exists," said Ellen Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, one of the sponsors of the $3 million project.

"It's pitch black, scalding hot, icy cold ... the fact that life exists under such extreme conditions without sunlight has tremendous implications for the possibility of life in outer space and offers new insight into the origins of life on earth," Futter said.

Expedition scientists also said the organisms could support the theory that life on Earth began in sea-floor cauldrons.

While small sulfide structures have been recovered in the past, no one has ever attempted to raise a large, actively growing sample, said Deborah Kelley, a University of Washington oceanographer and chief scientist on one of the project's two research boats.

One of the chimneys was still boiling hot when it arrived at the surface, while another yielded unprecedented samples of still-growing bacterial cultures from its interior.

The three-week mission which took three years to plan. It ended Saturday, when two research ships returned to Seattle with the cargo.

The specimens -- between 5 to 7 feet long and weighing as much as 4,050 pounds -- resemble gnarled tree stumps, with streaks of black, gold and white from the minerals marcasite, chalopyrite and anhydrite.

The fact that the creatures inside the chimneys thrive completely without sunlight could mean that there may also be life in the deep sea vents on the ocean floor of Jupiter's moon Europa, said expedition co-leader John Delaney.

"It is a chance of a lifetime to work with samples that actually links the environment to the animals," said Jozee Sarrazin, a biologist from Quebec who was part of the crew.

She said more than 400 new species have been found since the vents were discovered 20 years ago.