Published online 8 April 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.224

News: Q&A

Virgin Oceanic plumbs the depths for science

Mission scientists discuss what Richard Branson's deep-sea quest hopes to find.

Scientists are along for the ride as Virgin Oceanic explores the deepest parts of our oceans.Virgin Oceanic

Richard Branson's plans to pilot a deep-diving submarine to the bottom of the ocean may sound like just the latest adventure for the entrepreneur behind the Virgin brand. But the Virgin Oceanic mission, unveiled this week, is backed by a team of scientists planning groundbreaking marine research.

The project aims to take a one-person submarine to the deepest parts of the seas, starting with the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. This will be the first manned exploration of the area since the Trieste submersible set an unequalled depth record of more than 10 kilometres by voyaging to the bottom of the Challenger Deep region of the trench in 1960.

As well as the manned submarine, a series of remote probes will be dispatched into the depths carrying scientific equipment. Nature spoke to research-team members Douglas Bartlett, a marine microbiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, and Katrina Edwards, a microbiologist at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, about what they hope to learn.

What excites you about this project?

DB: I was surprised to hear about this manned expedition, but certainly delighted. The dream that Chris Welsh [Virgin Oceanic's chief pilot] had was: wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be some substantial science to go along with this?

When the Trieste set down on the sea floor of the Challenger Deep area, it was there for just 20 minutes and made only very, very preliminary observations before it had to get back up to the surface. I think there's a lot of potential in using manned submersibles for exploration, in conjunction with autonomous underwater vehicles and remote-operated vehicles.

What will you get out of this?

DB: It's not difficult to get things down deep, it's just hard to get them back up. The wonderful development that has taken place over the past few years is in the use of highly pressure-resistant glass spheres. We use these to provide buoyancy to devices and to avoid tethering them to ships. The engineer that I work with — Kevin Hardy — likes to think about these untethered instruments as the pickup trucks of the deep ocean. You can hook up all sorts of things to them.

We'll get water, we'll get sediments, we might be able to put a filtration system down near the sea floor so that we can concentrate the microbes in the sea water. We can get the equivalent of perhaps thousands of litres of seawater microbes by doing that.

KE: My own organization's main contribution is more along the lines of helping them to gather physical data concerning videography, still images and bathometric data on the geology and geochemistry of the trench environments.

That's where the data are limited. We don't have much physical information at all about these really remote environments. Putting together a comprehensive set of hypotheses about what exactly is going on down there in terms of the geology, the geochemistry and in particular the microbiology, is really untrodden ground for the most part.

What devices other than the Virgin submarine will be involved in this project?

DB: The submarine will be very valuable in mapping out the environment. It can help to set the stage for future scientific missions. If that sub is out there discovering cold seeps and mud volcanoes and new areas where there are clam fields and microbial mats and who knows what, that will pique the interest of various marine biologists and geologists. In terms of actually getting material to study in a detailed way, the bulk of that is going to be from the water samples and the sediment samples and the traps.


KE: I'm hoping to get some microbiology samples back, mainly through the landers. But any information that they gain from the sub about the physical layout of what's down there can be used to develop projects that can be sold more readily to our national funding agencies. They want to know that scientists know what they're going for, and they don't want to go on fishing expeditions. For remote environments, we have so little information that it's nearly impossible to put proposals through any national or international organization to go and collect samples. The information that we gain could be a key driving force in such efforts down the road.

How will the samples actually inform your research?

KE: My personal interests are in the part that microbes play in geological processes. For example, the Mariana Trench has a series of mud volcanoes that are the result of important reactions occurring down in the crust. Understanding what role the microbes have in those types of reaction is key in my world.

DB: We will be able to isolate single microbial cells and elucidate their genome sequences. There are high-throughput methods now for culturing microbes that will allow us to characterize them for their potential biotechnological value. There's never been a better time to explore this environment, because we can do it in much more detail than people have been able to even think about before. 


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  • #60520

    If it was more than 50 years ago since someone went down there, and with all the advanced technology since then, why was it a film director who went down and not marine biologist? Or maybe it should have been built to carry him and the biologist.
    Jack at :knol":

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