While performing science deep under the surface of the Caribbean Sea, the HyBIS underwater vehicle came across the deepest hydrothermal vent ever discovered. This type of structures are chimney-like formations, through which mineral-rich water, heated to large temperatures by our planet's mantle, pours out into the surrounding ocean. Though they are very harsh, these environments are home to numerous species, including higher ones such as crustaceans, and lower ones including microbes. Some experts believe that the earliest life forms on Earth appeared around hydrothermal vents.
The newly-discovered structure was found about 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles, below the surface, and it was determined to be of the black smoker category. This particular type of vent is called like this because its “members” release large amounts of iron sulfide compounds, which are black in appearance. This particular formation was discovered in the Cayman Trough, by National Oceanography Center (NOC) geologist Bramley Murton, who was operating the HyBIS submersible. The previous depth record for hydrothermal vents was only 4.2 kilometers, or about 2.6 miles.
“It was like wandering across the surface of another world. The rainbow hues of the mineral spires and the fluorescent blues of the microbial mats covering them were like nothing I had ever seen before,” the expert says of the time when he first saw the structure. In addition to the HyBIS instrument, the team behind the investigation also used the Autosub6000 submersible to produce accurate maps of the ocean floor at the Cayman Trough, LiveScience reports. They discovered that, near the vent, the pressure reached 500 times its average value at the surface of the sea.
The research team now says that it will focus its efforts on comparing the microbes and other microorganisms found at this location with species previously identified around other, similar vents. This should provide experts with a solid background for studying various aspects related to the organisms' evolution. Thorough studies could also yield more clues on whether the earliest life forms on our planet indeed appeared around such structures. Last but not least, this line of research may finally answer some of the most puzzling questions related to the possibility of life enduring on other planets, around structures such as this one.