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Extreme 2003 takes students worldwide to the ocean’s depths

11:22 a.m., Nov. 26, 2003--University of Delaware marine scientists will lead thousands of students worldwide on a 23-day research expedition to study hydrothermal vents on the Pacific Ocean floor as part of Extreme 2003: To the Depths of Discovery.

The expedition, which begins Saturday, Nov. 29, will continue to Sunday, Dec. 21, with researchers leaving Manzanillo, Mexico, aboard the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis for a dive site atop the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.

Researchers will use the submersible Alvin to reach hydrothermal vents nearly two miles deep to study the creatures that inhabit the scalding hot water surrounding the vents.

Students around the world have an opportunity to participate in this unique educational experience through an interactive web site, printed curriculum, video documentary and evaluation materials.

One of the highlights will be conference telephone calls between selected classrooms and scientists working live aboard the submersible Alvin. Other students will have access to the scientists via e-mail and an expedition web site at [http://www.ocean.udel.edu/extreme2003/].

“This project is about getting students excited about science,” Craig Cary, UD assistant professor of marine biology and chief scientist on the expedition, said. “We want to introduce students to one of the most fascinating habitats on the planet and engage them in the thrill of discovery.”

Cary and his colleagues made headlines on an Extreme expedition in 1998 when they confirmed that the Pompeii worm, which lives at the hydrothermal vents, is the planet’s most heat-tolerant animal. The worms are able to withstand temperatures up to 176 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the 2001 expedition, UD scientists working with Amersham Biosciences succeeded in conducting the first DNA sequencing experiments ever carried out while at sea. They were able to sequence just under 2 million base pairs of DNA from different microbes and organisms that live in and around the vents.

The submersible Alvin, with a pilot and two scientific observers inside, ready to be deployed in the Pacific Ocean. The sub is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Cary said Extreme 2003: To the Depths of Discovery will involve 23 scientists from nine institutions, with 18 scheduled dives.

Cary will continue studies of the Pompeii worm and, specifically, genomic studies of the bacteria that live on the back of the worm. This work is funded through the National Science Foundation biocomplexity initiative and involves chemists, geochemists and microbiologists.

Cary will be doing additional work on the worm itself, which lives “in a very dynamic thermal and chemical gradient,” with one end living in extremely hot water and one in very cold water. He will be studying the genes expressed in the head and the tail, which will be the first time such a microarray has been completed at sea.

Scientists also will be studying the bacteria that colonize vents early in their development in comparison to the bacteria that inhabit the vents as they mature. Also, there will be an attempt to bring living Pompeii worms to the surface using a pressurized aquarium.

The 2003 expedition is supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant Program, the Public Broadcasting System’s WHYY-TV12 and the University of Delaware.

More than 45,000 students from nearly 600 schools worldwide are participating in the project. Students represent all but one of the 50 states, as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Uzbekistan.

“This is our biggest program to date,” Tracey Bryant, director of the Marine Public Education Office in the UD College of Marine Studies, said.

Article by Neil Thomas
Graphic and photos by University of Delaware College of Marine Studies

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