Extreme 2003 takes students worldwide to the ocean's depth

December 08, 2003

Arlington, Va.--Marine scientists will lead students from many countries on a 23-day research expedition to study hydrothermal vents on the Pacific Ocean floor as part of "Extreme 2003: To the Depths of Discovery."

The expedition, which begins Saturday, November 29, will continue through Sunday, December 21, with researchers aboard the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis. Researchers will use the submersible Alvin to reach hydrothermal vents nearly two miles deep to study the creatures that inhabit the scalding hot water surrounding the vents.

Said Lisa Rom, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s ocean education program, which funded the research, "We are delighted that so many students have taken advantage of the opportunity to shadow oceanographers and learn what goes on during a research cruise - with all the excitement and sometimes disappointment of exploring a place that is so remarkable. We hope that these students never lose that sense of excitement about science, and that they learn that a scientist's real work is to explore the unknown."

Students around the world have an opportunity to participate in this unique educational experience through an interactive web site, printed curriculum, video documentary and evaluation materials.

One of the highlights will be conference telephone calls between selected classrooms and scientists working live aboard the submersible Alvin. Other students will have access to the scientists via e-mail and an expedition web site at http://www.ocean.udel.edu/extreme2003/.

"This project is about getting students excited about science," said Craig Cary, University of Delaware (UD) biologist and chief scientist on the expedition. "We want to introduce students to one of the most fascinating habitats on the planet and engage them in the thrill of discovery."

Cary and colleagues made headlines on a similar expedition in 1998 when they confirmed that the Pompeii worm, which lives at the hydrothermal vents, is the planet's most heat-tolerant animal. The worms are able to withstand temperatures up to 176 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the 2001 Extreme expedition, University of Delaware scientists working with Amersham Biosciences succeeded in conducting the first DNA sequencing experiments ever carried out while at sea. They were able to sequence just under 2 million base pairs of DNA from different microbes and organisms that live in and around the vents.

Cary said "Extreme 2003: To the Depths of Discovery" will involve 23 scientists from nine institutions, with 18 scheduled dives.

Cary will continue studies of the Pompeii worm and, specifically, genomic studies of the bacteria that live on the back of the worm. This work is funded through the National Science Foundation Biocomplexity in the Environment priority area and involves chemists, geochemists and microbiologists.

Cary will be doing additional work on the worm itself, which lives "in a very dynamic thermal and chemical gradient," with one end living in extremely hot water and one in very cold water. He will be studying the genes expressed in the head and the tail, which will be the first time such research has been completed at sea.

Scientists also will be studying the bacteria that colonize vents early in their development in comparison to the bacteria that inhabit the vents as they mature. Also, there will be an attempt to bring living Pompeii worms to the surface using a pressurized aquarium.

The 2003 expedition is also supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant Program, the Public Broadcasting System's WHYY-TV12 and the University of Delaware.

More than 45,000 students from nearly 600 schools worldwide are participating in the project. Students represent all but one of the 50 states, as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Uzbekistan.
Media Contacts: NSF, Cheryl Dybas, 703-292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
University of Delaware: Tracey Bryant, 302-831-8185, tbyrant@udel.edu

NSF PR 03-138

NSF Program Contact: Lisa Rom, erom@nsf.gov, 703-292-8580

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 10,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $200 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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