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In this lesson, we will talk about hydrothermal vents, what they are, and what they release. We’ll also look into why the substances they release are important for bacteria and higher life forms such as crabs and tubeworms.

Bacteria in the Depths of the Ocean

In this lesson we’re going to take a very exciting trip, far more exciting than most field trips. We’re actually going to get into a submersible vehicle that will allow us to see everything around us as we descend into the depths of the world’s oceans. This little field trip will be performed for the purposes of exploring some very specific types of bacteria that live deep down as well as the way they live their life there.

Hydrothermal Vent

As we get into our little submersible vehicle, we close all the doors and begin our descent.

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We see some sharks and whales along the way, and eventually the sunlight disappears and we have to turn on the lights. As we dive even deeper we begin to see really mysterious fish that few have ever seen before, and eventually we start to notice that all sorts of little volcano-like eruptions are occurring everywhere around us.Except there isn’t any lava to be seen at the moment; it just looks like there’s smoke coming out of little chimney-like projections from the ocean floor. Other vents don’t have anything visible coming out of them, but our submersible’s temperature gauges register some very hot water coming out of them. In fact, it’s really hot – about 700 degrees Fahrenheit hot.

When there is an opening in the ocean floor through which very hot water flows as a result of underlying volcanic activity, we term such an opening a hydrothermal vent.

Chemical-Rich Water

The water being vented, or released, by these hydrothermal vents is precious to the formation of the local life for many reasons. First of all, in the depths of the ocean there’s no sun to help power life. Secondly, at these depths the ocean is very cold, treacherous, and relatively nutrient-poor. However, the water, chemicals, and nutrients released by the hydrothermal vents are able to sustain quite a bit of life in their local area. In fact, the base of the food chain in these locations is formed by microbes that are chemosynthetic, meaning these are organisms that make organic compounds from energy that is derived from inorganic molecules, such as hydrogen sulfide.

Further Up the Food Chain

As the bacteria grow and multiply thanks to the energy-providing nutrients billowing out of the vents, so do the other organisms living in this unique ecosystem. Mollusks, crabs, and limpets use the bacteria or the substances they excrete as a source of food. These predators can in turn be used as a food source by larger animals, such as octopuses, and so on down the line.

In the end, an entire world in the middle of what was once considered to be an area devoid of life can truly thrive.You may think that the poor bacteria I mentioned before are all eaten up by the higher life forms. That’s not entirely true. The bacteria actually depend on some of these higher life forms for survival.

For example, there are tubeworms that live in deepwater vent ecosystems. These tubeworms have no digestive tract with which to derive energy from. Without one, they should technically be dead. Imagine if you had no esophagus, stomach, or intestines. There would be no way for you by which to derive energy.

You would die as well.However, the tubeworms have a special relationship with deepwater vent bacteria. These bacteria use the tubeworms as their home. They literally reside within the tubeworm. This way, the bacteria aren’t eaten up or killed by predators and the tubeworm uses the bacteria it provides a home for to its advantage – namely, the bacteria can utilize chemosynthesis to produce organic molecules that the worm can then feed off of to survive.

Lesson Summary

As we conclude our little trip underneath the sea we wave goodbye to the hydrothermal vent we visited. This is an opening in the ocean floor through which very hot water flows as a result of underlying volcanic activity.

The water being vented, or released, by these hydrothermal vents is precious to the formation of the local community life for many reasons. The water, chemicals, and nutrients released by the hydrothermal vents are able to sustain quite a bit of life in the local area. In fact, the base of the food chain in these locations is formed by microbes that are chemosynthetic, meaning these are organisms that make organic compounds from energy that is derived from inorganic molecules, such as hydrogen sulfide.

Learning Outcomes

When the lesson is finished, you should be able to:

  • Define hydrothermal vent and chemosynthetic
  • Discuss the significance of water released from hydrothermal vents
  • Recall the relationship between tubeworms and deepwater vent bacteria

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