Explorations of Oxygen-Free Seas on the Oceanus (Part II: Clemens and Claudia)

 This is the second blog post of a series on Jennifer Glass’ experience at sea.

Read the first part here.


Six thousand feet below our ship, three tectonic plates are colliding. Like slow-moving conveyor belts, the Rivera and Cocos Plates creep under the North American Plate. Where the denser oceanic plates dip below the less dense continental crust, the Middle America Trench is formed.


Tectonic plates move extremely slowly, at about the same rate your fingernails grow. But in a few million years, the marine mud riding east towards America on the oceanic crust will reach a fiery fate as fodder for future Mexican volcanoes.


To sample these sediments, a special coring device hooked to a cable on the ship is lowered to the ocean floor, thousands of feet below. Then the wire is carefully rewound to bring the plastic sleeves filled with mud cores to the surface.


In such deep waters, this coring process can take hours, and there’s no guarantee of success; about half the time, the core hits hard rock instead of soft sediment, or the mud escapes from the tubes before the scientists can recover it. Despite the odds, we have already recovered sediments from three stations, in depths up to three thousand meters of water.


Sediment bacteria experience big metabolic shifts due to temperature and pressure changes during the journey from their native habitat to the sea surface. Clemens Schauberger, a PhD student in Professor Bo Thamdrup’s lab at University of Southern Denmark, wants to freeze a snapshot of these sediments in time to study their complex microbial communities. Schauberger is testing how to stabilize nucleic acids on the seafloor before their long voyage to the surface.


Claudia Remes, a Masters student in Alejandra Prieto-Davo’s lab at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is saving some of these sediments from imminent tectonic destruction, in the hopes that they can help humans fight infectious pathogens. Almost all of known antibiotics come from land; Remes and Prieto-Davo are working to uncover new natural microbial products from the deep sea.


As a former gamer, Remes likes to compare science to a videogame: she thinks of each station as a new level in her quest. After retrieving the core, she dries the mud in petri dishes, grinds it, and stamps the powder onto agar gel designed to select for Actinobacteria with specialized enzymes that make antibiotics. Her favorite pet bacterium in the lab is a chubby pink one she named “Kirby” after the Nintendo character.

Stay tuned for more blog posts over the next ten days of our expedition. In each, I will feature scientists from the expedition and the exciting research that inspires them to go to sea.

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Spanish translation:

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Exploraciones en los Mares Libres de Oxígeno a bordo del Oceanus (Parte II: Clemens y Claudia)


A tres mil metros por debajo de nuestro barco, tres placas tectónicas colisionan. Al igual que las corrientes marinas de movimiento lento, las Placas Rivera y Cocos se deslizan debajo de la Placa Norteamericana. Es un lugar en donde las placas oceánicas más densas se sumergen debajo de la corteza continental… ahí se forma la Fosa de la América Media.

Las placas tectónicas se mueven muy lentamente, aproximadamente a la misma velocidad que crecen tus uñas. Pero en unos pocos millones de años, el lodo marino que se desliza desde el este hacia América en la corteza oceánica tendrá como destino el convertirse en alimento para futuros volcanes mexicanos.


Para tomar muestras de éstos sedimentos, un dispositivo de extracción especial enganchado a un cable en el barco se baja al fondo del océano, miles de metros abajo. Una vez en el fondo, el cable se rebobina cuidadosamente para traer los nucleadores, que son tubos transparentes de plástico que son llenados de sedimentos del fondo marino y son llevados a la superficie.

En aguas tan profundas, este proceso puede tardar horas, y no hay garantía de éxito. Muchas de las veces el núcleo sólo golpea el fondo rocoso en lugar del sedimento blando, o el barro se escapa de los tubos antes de que los científicos puedan recuperarlo. A pesar de todas éstas adversidades, ya hemos podido recuperar sedimentos en tres estaciones, en profundidades de hasta tres mil metros.


Las bacterias sedimentarias marinas experimentan grandes cambios metabólicos debido a cambios en la temperatura y presión durante el viaje desde su hábitat nativo hasta la superficie del mar. Clemens Schauberger, estudiante de doctorado en el laboratorio del profesor Bo Thamdrup en la Universidad del Sur de Dinamarca, quiere congelar un instantante de la vida de las complejas comunidades microbianas que viven en éstos sedimentos. Schauberger está probando cómo estabilizar los ácidos nucleicos en el fondo marino antes de su largo viaje a la superficie.

Claudia Remes, estudiante de Maestría en el laboratorio de Alejandra Prieto-Davo en la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, está salvando algunos de estos sedimentos de una inminente destrucción tectónica, con la esperanza de que puedan ayudar a los humanos a combatir patógenos infecciosos. Casi todos los antibióticos conocidos provienen de la tierra; Remes y Prieto-Davo están trabajando para descubrir nuevos productos microbianos naturales  provenientes del fondo del mar.

Como una ex gamer, a Remes le gusta comparar cada etapa de su investigación científica con un nuevo nivel del videojuego. Después de recuperar el núcleo, se seca el barro en placas Petri, se pulveriza  y se estampa el sedimento en el gel de agar nutritivo selectivo para actinobacterias con enzimas especializadas que producen antibióticos. Su bacteria mascota favorita en el laboratorio es una rosa, redonda  y gordita que ella llamó "Kirby" por su parecido con el personaje de Nintendo.

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