By: April Carson
The Gulf of Aqaba, a northern extension to the Red Sea, contains rare deep-sea brine pools, according to scientists from the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. These salty underwater lakes preserve secrets into Earth's past oceans and offer insights into life on other planets.
In collaboration with OceanX, Sam Purkis, director of the UM Department of Marine Geosciences and chair of the department, used a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) on the OceanXplorer, OceanX's highly equipped marine research ship capable of exploring the most inaccessible regions on Earth to confirm his discovery more than one mile beneath the sea surface.
The ROV discovered multiple hypersaline brine lakes, or "pools," some of which were separated by only thin layers of anhydrite. The lakes are thought to be the result of seawater evaporating in a closed basin and becoming supersaturated with salt. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind a high concentration of salt that can eventually become so dense that it forms a separate body of water.
The discovery is significant because it provides new insight into how extreme environments on Earth can support life. Organisms that live in hypersaline environments have to adapt to conditions that are hostile to most other life forms on Earth. For example, Halomonas titanicae, a bacterium that was discovered living in one of the brine pools, can withstand salt concentrations that would kill other bacteria.
"People are always looking at ways to enhance life. It's important we continue to search for signs of advanced technology," said Purkis. "We don't know where our limits lie until we understand the constraints of Earth life. Our discovery of a diverse community of microorganisms that can survive in extreme circumstances may assist us in determining the boundaries of Earth life and searching for alien planets with potential."
While brine pools are one of the most hostile environments on Earth, despite their high salinity, unusual chemistry, and complete lack of oxygen, they teem with life. Bioactive molecules with anti-cancer potential have previously been discovered in Red Sea salt pool bacteria.
The first discovery of brine pools in the Gulf of Aqaba, as reported in Communications Earth & Environment, is the study. The study's lead author, Thijs Ettema from Sweden's Uppsala University, said the team used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to explore an area where the seafloor was more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) below the surface.
"We were very fortunate," Purkis continued. "The breakthrough arrived in the last five minutes of a ten-hour ROV dive that we could devote to this study."
The ROV's lights revealed a strange, dark area on the seafloor that turned out to be a deep-sea brine pool. This was the first time that such features had been observed in the Gulf of Aqaba.
"These brine pools are like oases in the desert," Ettema said. "They are extremely salty and rich in minerals, and they support a unique community of microorganisms."
The team collected water samples from the brine pools and found that they contained high concentrations of dissolved methane and hydrogen sulfide. These molecules are thought to be important precursors for life on Earth, and they could also be used as energy sources by microbial communities.
The most salty, zero-oxygen pools in the world are located on the coast and preserve information on past tsunamis, flashfloods, and earthquakes in the Gulf of Aqaba. Many faults and fractures exist beneath the seabed as a result of tectonics in this area of the Gulf of Aqaba.
"Brine pools are time capsules," said Purkis. "They can hold a wealth of information about past environmental conditions and natural disasters."
For example, the team found that the size and shape of brine pools can help researchers understand how big a tsunami or flash flood might have been.
"The size, shape, and topography of brine pools offer clues as to the energy and intensity of the event that formed them," said co-author Prof. Leah Bendich from Carleton University in Canada.
They discovered a 500-year-old submarine landslide that may have triggered a large tsunami in the region, which could have implications for Egyptian and Saudi Arabian coastlines. The team also found evidence of a much older, possibly million-year-old, event.
"Determining the ages of these features is essential to understanding the tectonic and seismic history of the area and could help assess the hazard posed by future events," said Purkis. "This work represents an important step in that direction."
The discovery of these deep-sea brine pools also raises questions about the potential for life on other worlds. If life can adapt to such extreme conditions on Earth, could it also exist on moons or planets with similar environments? There is currently no evidence for life on any other world, but the discovery of these deep-sea brine pools shows that life can find a way to survive in even the most inhospitable environments.
The results of this study have been published in Marine Geology.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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