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Classrooms Worldwide Invited to 'Dive In' to Deep-sea Expedition

University of Delaware researchers will lead an international team to explore deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean next month, and middle- and high-school classrooms worldwide are invited to “dive in” with them.

Registration is now open for classrooms around the globe to participate in “Extreme 2008: A Deep-Sea Adventure,” an exciting virtual field trip to the ocean's depths presented by UD with support from the National Science Foundation. Classroom registrations will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until Friday, Oct. 31, at [].

From Nov. 10-30, scientists and graduate students from UD, the University of Colorado, University of North Carolina, University of Southern California, J. Craig Venter Institute, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, will travel to underwater geysers in the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortés) to learn more about the microscopic organisms that thrive in these extreme environments of scalding heat, high pressure, toxic chemicals and total darkness.

The scientists' focus will be marine viruses and other tiny life called protists. These organisms prey on bacteria, the primary food for vent dwellers ranging from ghost-white vent crabs to bizarre-looking tubeworms.

“For many years, the vents have been explored with little to no attention to viruses and protists,” says Craig Cary, professor of marine biosciences in the UD College of Marine and Earth Studies. “Yet because these organisms eat bacteria, they have the most dramatic effect on the bacterial communities that support the vent system. Our research programs are among the first to focus on these remarkable scavengers.”

Cary, who is a veteran of more than 20 deep-sea research cruises, is the chief scientist on the expedition, which will set sail aboard the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis and periodically dive nearly 2 miles to the ocean floor in the submersible Alvin. Both vessels are owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Eric Wommack, an associate professor with joint appointments in both the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the College of Marine and Earth Studies, will join Cary in leading the UD contingent. Wommack, who is based at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, is an expert on marine viruses and will be deploying specialized equipment to capture them for analysis in the shipboard lab.

“As a group, viruses are the most abundant biological entities on Earth and contain its largest reservoir of unknown genes,” Wommack notes. “We know that bacteria at the deep-sea hydrothermal vents are intimately associated with relatively abundant populations of viruses. Our goal is to explore the wilderness of viral genes existing at the vents.”

David Caron, professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California, will lead a research team that will be examining single-celled organisms called protists. Caron is an expert in the ecology of these species, which include the microalgae and protozoa, and will be conducting ground-breaking work to understand the species diversity and activities of these creatures at the vents.

“Protists are important consumers of bacteria and other microorganisms in all other aquatic environments,” Caron said. “We believe that they serve as an essential link in the bacterial-based food webs of hydrothermal vents, but surprisingly little work has been performed in deep-sea ecosystems to document and understand the activities of these species.”

As the scientists work at sea, they will be connected to students via an interactive Web site, where blogs, dive logs, video clips, photos and interviews will be posted daily. Students also will be able to write to the scientists, design experiments and participate in a virtual science fair.

A capstone experience for selected schools will be a “Phone Call to the Deep,” linking classrooms with researchers working live in the submersible Alvin on the seafloor.

Teachers need to register their classrooms now for the popular educational program in order to receive the free curricula, study guides, and other educational activities designed to boost students' understanding of the ocean and the process of scientific discovery.

The program, coordinated by the Office of Communications & Marketing, is the sixth in UD's popular “Extreme” series, which has won state and national awards for public education.

Tracey Bryant | Newswise Science News
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