European network maps darkest corners of the planet
Cold seeps exist in some of the deepest, darkest, most hostile environments on the planet. They are vents located on the ocean floor and as part of underwater mud volcano systems. They give rise to some of the most unique organisms known to inhabit the earth, and can provide a wealth of information to scientists. Despite their potential, and because of their remote locations, they have been relatively understudied by researchers. To address the issue, the DG Research supported European Collaborative Research Scheme (EUROCORES), part of the European Science Foundation, developed the aptly named EUROMARGINS programme to study these fields of hydrocarbon-rich gas seepage, mud volcanoes and pockmarks. As EUROMARGINS is coming to a close, it ends in late 2007, EUROCORES organised an international conference to take stock of its achievements and discuss how to move on from here.
seeps are home to some otherworldly characters.
EUROMARGINS' research agenda was to develop new technologies
and conceptual models for these underwater environments, with
the expressed aim of advancing integrated research into the
mechanisms that are responsible for continental break-up and
the formation of the world's ocean basins and their margins.
Important ‘ingredients' of the programme were the
pooling of human resources, the training of a new generation
of geoscientists, and the optimal sharing of national observational
platforms (e.g. ships), analytical and modelling facilities.
EUROMARGINS has lead to numerous discoveries associated with
cold seeps. In the Mediterranean, Sébastien Duperron
from Université Pierre et Marie Curie in France has identified
symbiotic relationships never known to have existed. He has
recorded the symbiotic relationship between mussels and chemosynthetic
bacteria, bacteria able to produce energy from chemical compounds,
not light, in the water.
“In the bivalve species Idas sp., we have found
an association with six different symbionts. This is the widest
diversity of symbionts ever described in a bivalve species,”
said Mr Duperron. In addition, Mr Duperron noticed three of
the mussel symbionts belong to bacterial groups previously not
thought to be symbiotic. They appear to provide their hosts
with nutrients from an as yet unidentified source.
Luis Pinheiro, a member of the EUROMARGINS project from the University of Aveiro in Portugal, was part of an expedition that discovered mud volcanoes on the Nile deep-sea fan. He has since been investigating the volcanoes as part of team including members from Spain, France and Belgium. So far, they have identified characteristic ecosystems with particular faunal communities, living directly or indirectly on methane, some of which appear to represent completely new species.
All told, EUROMARGINS has supported over 70 research teams from 12 countries dedicated to imaging, monitoring, reconstruction and modelling of the physical and chemical processes that occur in cold seeps. Present at the recent conference in Italy were scientists from around 50 research groups from around the world.
Other EUROCORES programmes are expected to continue the work catalogued by EUROMARGINS and build upon the networks it created. Challenges of Marine Coring Research (EuroMARC) and Topo-Europe are two examples of EU-funded projects expected to pick up were EUROMARGINS left off.