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The depths of the Pacific Ocean are to be plumbed for some extraordinary lifeforms that can survive in boiling water and which dine on minerals that contain copper, gold and nickel. Copyright CSIRO Australia, 1999.
Deepsea Explorers Sally Forth In Search Of Life
Cairns - April 14, 2000 - A unique Australian scientific mission set sail today from Cairns on the north Pacific coast of Australia. The team plumb the depths of the Pacific Ocean for extraordinary lifeforms that can survive in boiling water and which dine on minerals containing copper, gold and nickel.

The CSIRO expedition aboard the research vessel Franklin will conduct a pioneering search of active volcanic vents a kilometre down on the seabed of the Manus Basin, north of Papua New Guinea.

Their aim is to discover "extremophile" microbes endowed with the natural ability to process minerals at high temperature, to help make Australia's $37 billion mineral export industry cleaner, greener, safer and more competitive.

The search will be conducted in an eerie landscape of smoking undersea chimneys that pump mineral fluids from deep in the earth's mantle into the surrounding ocean, shattered mineral columns resembling ancient ruins and hills mantled in snow-white carpets of bacteria and organic hydrates -- compounds which can only exist at the extreme pressures of the deep sea.

The project was initiated by Dr Bruce Hobbs, Chief of CSIRO Exploration and Mining, Dr Rod Hill, Chief of CSIRO Minerals and Dr Dave Dekker of CSIRO Exploration & Mining.

Dr Ray Binns of CSIRO Exploration and Mining discovered these particular deposits and will lead the shipborne expedition, which is an international collaboration.

CSIRO is working closely with Papua New Guinea authorities to ensure the scientific and commercial interests of our nearest neighbour are protected. "Their scientists will directly benefit from participation in this expedition," says Dr Dekker.

Dr Hobbs says the goal is to find particular microbes that can be used to process minerals on dry land, and so develop more efficient and cleaner ways to win metals.

"When times are tough in the minerals industry, the miners who survive are the ones who can obtain pure minerals for the lowest cost.

"This trip is all about prospecting -- but in this case, we're prospecting for microbes rather than actual minerals," he says. "To do so we're exploring exactly the same sort of system as the ones that formed Australia's mightiest orebodies, like Broken Hill and Mt Isa."

Dr Hobbs believes the deep sea bugs will enable Australia's miners to exploit lower grade ore deposits, extract metals more cheaply, clean up waste streams and may even improve mine safety.

Microbiologist Dr Peter Franzmann says that the mineral-mining bugs are possibly relatives of some of the earliest forms of life to emerge on the planet, more than three billion years ago.

"Back then, conditions were similar to what we now see in these seafloor hydrothermal vents -- high temperatures, intense pressure, lots of volcanic activity, darkness, with the nutrients to sustain life pouring out of the earth itself."

While similar mineral-eating bugs exist on land -- and are used in some mining industries -- the researchers expect these "extremophile" bacteria to be able to process mineral ores far more efficiently.

"The minerals are pouring out of the earth in fluids at temperatures of 300-400 degrees into the much colder sea water. The bugs live right where the superheated fluid meets the sea and the temperatures are between 80 and 110 degrees, at pressures around 150 atmospheres.

"We know they thrive down there. Some of the undersea landscapes are smothered in a mat of bacteria, dining on the mineral-rich sediments."



    Ariel D. Anbar - photo University of Rochester
    Ancient Leftovers May Provide Clues To Early Life
    Rochester - April 14, 2000 - Researchers are turning their attention to the culinary habits of microbes in their search for a few chemical "crumbs" of evidence of ancient, remote, and even extra-terrestrial life. Scientists are analyzing rocks from the furthest reaches of Earth, and beyond, using new and sensitive instrumentation to check for tell-tale signs of ancient life.

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