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40 Yrs Ago Oregon Coast Scientists Helped Discover Startling New Lifeforms

Published 02/26/2017 at 4:49 AM PDT - Updated 02/26/2017 at 4:59 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

40 Yrs Ago Oregon Coast Scientists Helped Make Game-Changing Discovery

(Corvallis, Oregon) – Forty years ago, more than one OSU / Hatfield Marine Science Center oceanographer made a stunning discovery that changed science. This was truly a sea change: a discovery that involved a new form of life, and affected everything from theories on how life was started on Earth to how life on other worlds may be possible. It even influenced an episode of “The X-Files” TV show from the '90s. (Photo above courtesy Hatfield Marine Science Center: tubeworms living next to hydrothermal vents off the Oregon coast).

In 1977, OSU's Jack Corliss discovered a bizarre colony of sea creatures living deep in the ocean, in an area known as the Galapogos Rift. Living next to a hydrothermal vent, these clams, tube worms and other creatures had no visible source of light or food. But it turned out those sources were the vents themselves: the first known “extremophiles,” meaning creatures that live in extreme environments.

On March 2 and 3, Oregon State University will celebrate this revolutionary discovery with two presentations featuring Corliss himself, among other scientists from the Hatfield on the central Oregon coast. The two days of lectures and presentations happen in Corvallis called “OSU and Hydrothermal Vents: 40th Anniversary of the Discovery that Launched 1,000 Ships.”

On Thursday, March 2, there will be three short lectures from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the Learning Innovation Center, Room 210. On Friday, March 3, events happen in Burt Hall Room 193 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. All events are free and open to the public.

Corliss will be traveling from Budapest, Hungary, where he now lives.

Among the presenters will be Robert Collier, a professor emeritus at OSU, who was a participant on that 1977 expedition. On Thursday, he and Corliss will discuss the history of the discovery and the new fields of study it spawned, which include astrobiology and new areas of chemistry.

Also appearing that day is Hatfield researcher Bill Chadwick, who will talk other hydrothermal discoveries in the Pacific Ocean, which will likely include those made off the Oregon coast. OSU and Hatfield oceanographer Andrew Thurber will describe how those unique lifeforms at hydrothermal vents can influence the climate.

Friday's events include Corliss and other members of the expedition holding an open forum on the discovery, which will be taped for historical purposes.

At the time of that discovery, the expedition dubbed the strange new hydrothermal vent community “The Garden of Eden.” Using a submersible and its mechanical arm, they collected samples of worms, mussels, anemones and clams, some of which are still housed today at the Smithsonian Institution.

Researchers first spotted the unusual creatures via an underwater sled equipped with a camera on February 15. They made their initial dive on February 17 in the submersible named Alvin, which has made numerous discoveries since then – including some on the sunken Titanic.

These extremophiles were found to be living of hydrogen sulfide – yes, the stuff that stinks like rotten eggs.

In the 1990s, the ninth episode of season 2 of The X-Files – called Firewalker – featured a killer in the form of an extremophile fungus that plagues an underground expedition. The episode was inspired by the finds of Corliss and crew.

For more on the Corvallis, Oregon events call 541-737-5208. More photos of hydrothermal vents below, courtesy the Hatfield Marine Science Center, as well as shots of the Hatfield.







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