Scientists Determine How Chemistry Keeps Weird Worms

Press Release From: University of Delaware
Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2001

Contact: Tracey Bryant, Marine Outreach Coordinator
University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies
Newark, DE 19716-3530
Phone: 302-831-8185

Using a novel detector attached to a submarine, a research team led by University of Delaware marine scientists has determined that water chemistry controls the location and distribution of two species of weird worms that inhabit deep-sea hydrothermal vent sites. The study, which is the first to demonstrate through real-time measurements how different chemical compounds control the biology at the vents, is reported in the April 12 edition of Nature.

The interdisciplinary research team included chemists, biologists, and marine engineers from the UD Graduate College of Marine Studies, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Rutgers University, and Analytical Instrument Systems, Inc. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Sea Grant College Program, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

UD’s George Luther, a marine chemist, and Craig Cary, a marine biologist, worked with Don Nuzzio, president of Analytical Instrument Systems in Flemington, New Jersey, to develop a chemical detector capable of withstanding the harsh conditions at the vents. Their “electrochemical analyzer” consists of a foot-long wand that houses several needle-like, gold-tipped electrodes, which are coated in super-tough plastic to protect them from heat. The wand, which resembles a large, hand-held hairdrier, is connected to a 3-foot-long, 8-inch-diameter tube that houses the system’s electronics. The tube is mounted to the bottom of the submarine Alvin.

Once attached to one of Alvin’s highly maneuverable arms, the analyzer’s wand can be placed near a vent to instantaneously reveal the ingredients in the sulfur-rich stew rocketing out of the Earth’s crust.

“One of the analyzer’s greatest benefits is its ability to detect a number of sulfur compounds simultaneously, such as iron monosulfide, hydrogen sulfide, thiosulfate, polysulfide, and others,” says Luther. “Previous techniques could not identify these compounds, which are the lifeblood of the vents.”

During the past two years, the research team tested the analyzer at vent sites in the Gulf of California and in the Pacific Ocean. They examined the microhabitats of two different vent worms: the tubeworm (Riftia pachyptila), which looks like a giant lipstick and can grow to 9 feet tall, and the hairy, 5-inch Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana), which currently holds the record as the “hottest” animal on Earth.

The tubeworm lives on the seafloor near hydrothermal vents. It has no eyes, mouth, or stomach. Instead, this worm relies on the billions of bacteria that live inside it to make food. Using the analyzer in a tubeworm colony, the scientists confirmed that this animal resides in waters up to 30°C (86°F), and its bacteria require hydrogen sulfide for survival. If the chemical is not present, the tubeworms die.

Unlike the tubeworm, the Pompeii worm eats helpful microbes. “A fleece of bacteria also occupies this worm’s back,” says UD marine biologist Craig Cary. In 1998, Cary and his team confirmed that the Pompeii worm is the most heat-tolerant animal on Earth, capable of surviving nearly boiling water.

“The Pompeii worm forms tube-dwelling colonies on the sides of certain vent chimneys,” says Cary. By replacing the analyzer’s hairdrier-like wand with a more slender attachment, the scientists were able to insert the device right into the Pompeii worm’s home. They found that the Pompeii worm resides in much hotter water than the tubeworm, with temperatures fluctuating from 40° – 90°C (104° – 194°F).

According to Luther, this hot water causes an important chemical reaction critical for the worm’s survival. “The higher temperatures allow for the formation of soluble iron monosulfide, a compound that reduces the toxicity of the hydrogen sulfide in the surrounding water,” he notes. “So figuratively speaking, you might say the worm’s hot-water home helps keep it out of ‘hot water.’ ”

While this research demonstrates how differences in chemical compounds control the unique ecology of vent environments, Luther says the study also may aid astrobiologists.

“The interplay of oxygen, iron, and sulfide compounds in controlling biology in primordial environments on Earth could provide a paradigm for the detection of life on other planets,” he says. “Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is covered in ice. But recent findings suggest that portions of the ice move, which is strong evidence that liquid water lies beneath it, maintained by hydrothermal vents. If hydrothermal vents exist on Europa, there’s a possibility that ancient microbes could live there, too.”

*Click on each photo below to obtain a high-resolution, print-quality image. These photos are under copyright of the University of Delaware and must be credited as indicated.

This chemical detector — the "electrochemical analyzer" — was built by scientists at the University of Delaware and Analytical Instrument Systems, Inc., in Flemington, New Jersey. It houses electrode sensors (shown in the photo below) for taking chemical measurements at hydrothermal vents. The wand also is equipped with a thermometer. Photo credit: University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies


From left, UD marine scientists Craig Cary and George Luther,
and Don Nuzzio, president of Analytical Instrument Systems, Inc., stand in front of the deep-sea sub Alvin. Photo credit: University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies


UD chemist George Luther has developed needle-like electrode sensors, which are encased in protective polymers for use in deep-sea research. Once deployed in a protective wand (see previous photo) from the submarine Alvin, the sensors can provide instantaneous readings of the different chemicals that spew out of hydrothermal vents. Photo credit: University of Delaware Sea Grant College Program


Don Nuzzio, president of Analytical Instrument Systems, Inc., in Flemington, New Jersey, designed the electronics for the deep-sea analyzer. They are housed in the black cylindrical unit shown here, mounted to the base of the submarine Alvin. Photo credit: University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies

Tubeworms have no mouth, eyes, or stomach ("gut"). Their survival depends on a symbiotic relationship with the billions of bacteria that live inside of them. These bacteria convert the chemicals that shoot out of the hydrothermal vents into food for the worm. This chemical-based food-making process is referred to as chemosynthesis. Photo credit: University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies


Previous University of Delaware research confirmed that the Pompeii worm is the most heat-tolerant animal on Earth, able to survive an environment nearly hot enough to boil water. Covering this deep-sea worm's back is a fleece of bacteria. These microbes may possess heat-stable enzymes useful in a variety of applications, such as pharmaceutical production, food processing, paper and textile manufacture, and others. Photo credit: University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies


If you look closely at the lower right-hand quadrant of this photo, you can see a Pompeii worm extending its dark-red feathery head and paler body from its tube home. The worm is about 13 centimeters (5 in) long. Photo credit: University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies


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