Underwater Volcano To Get Scientific Visit

February 08, 1998

Scientists will be paying a visit soon to what they believe is a volcano erupting under water. The scientists will be aboard a scientific ship looking to uncover the volcano's secrets -- and maybe the secret to the origins of life on this planet.

The eruption, about 300 miles off the northern Oregon coast, is causing intense earthquake activity on the sea floor. Technology used by the Navy to locate enemy submarines picked up the distinctive sound of seafloor eruptions. Scientists are excited about this chance to study the volcanic eruption because it could lead to clues about the origins of life and to the discovery of new medicines.

Investigators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation/Ridge will be boarding the Oregon State University research vessel, WECOMA, on Feb. 9 to study the volcanic activity up close.

The scientists want to reach the site as soon as possible so that they can study the life forms created during the blast. Whenever an underwater volcano erupts, a whole ecosystem of bacteria and viruses that has been living in the volcanic rock, reproduces rapidly and blasts up through the water column. Since some scientists believe that underwater volcanic vents might be the source of life on this planet, they want to study these organisms, which might contain genes that are millions of years old. Why does this matter? These bacteria have genetic material that is closer to our own than most of the bacteria floating around on land!

In addition, pharmaceutical companies are eyeing this kind of organism because its behavior under high temperatures can be useful -- in fact, one volcanic vent enzyme is already being used by pharmaceutical companies as a catalyst for a DNA chain reaction.

To follow the progress of the Axial Volcano research, visit the following Web site: http://newport.pmel.noaa.gov/axial98.html

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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