Planet Earth

In the Ocean, a Preview of Life on Enceladus?

Unexplored deep waters in the Atlantic Ocean could offer a preview of life—if it exists—on other moons and planets.

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Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A sea urchin (Cidaridae sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A hermit crab (Paguridae sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A close-up of the starfish arm (Coronaster sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A brittle star (Ophiurida sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

An unidentified coral species collected by scientists.

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A deep-sea carrier crab (Homolidae sp.) collected by scientists along the steep slopes of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago.

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

The arms of a starfish (Coronaster sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

The deep-sea coral(Enallopsammia sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A chemical reaction between seawater and the iron in mantle minerals creates hydrogen molecules. Microbes, single-celled or multi-celled microorganisms, feed off this hydrogen. These organisms are similar to those that existed on Earth billions of years ago and may be closely related to our planet’s earliest life forms. Klein and his team will seek out microbes in the deep and analyze the chemical processes within the mantle rocks as they occur. In doing so, the scientists hope to catch a glimpse of early life systems—a sort of window back in time to our most primitive selves, and perhaps to our alien counterparts. “Icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, Europa and Enceladus, have water below their surfaces; we know that,” says Klein. “And these moons contain the same rocks that are on these islands.” If distant moons in our solar system have the same rock, and the same water, they could have the chemical processes that feed the same basic forms of life here on Earth.

Left, a hermit crab (Paguridae sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

Deep-ocean environments, especially isolated locations, are rich with unusual, and often unique, organisms. A team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute recently collected clues from one of these unique regions, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, to learn about how life on Earth first began—and how alien life might evolve on other planets in the solar system.

Nobody has ever explored these deep waters, and no one on the team knows what they’ll find. “It’s a unique area, and so it might host some unique life systems,” says Frieder Klein, a marine geologist who led the scientific team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

This is just a tiny sampling of some of the creatures the multidisciplinary team of scientists collected earlier this year around this tiny island chain.

Left, a sea urchin, (Coelopleurus sp.)

These photos originally appeared in BioGraphic, an online magazine featuring beautiful and surprising stories about nature and sustainability.

Photo Credits: Solvin Markl

A damselfish (Stegastes sanctipauli)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A deep-sea crinoid (Comatulida sp.)

Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl

A polychaete worm (Sylidae sp.)

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