Published: Jan. 16, 2017

MSU researchers make new discoveries in the underwater world of ‘Lost City’

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561

Matt Schrenk, MSU assistant professor of geomicrobiology, and Katrina Twing, former graduate research assistant, were among nine scientists selected to board the RRS James Cook last fall on Expedition 357 to Lost City – a field of alkaline hydrothermal vents in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.

Lost City is located on Atlantis Massif, a seafloor mountain measuring about 10 miles across and nearly 4,000 meters high. The Expedition 357 field site was located in an area between Bermuda and the Azores.

"People are interested in this as a place where life may have originated … and where we can gain some insight into the processes that occurred early in earth's history," Schrenk said.

Conducted by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling, MSU’s participation ties into a five-year, $7 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Awarded in 2014, MSU was among several universities to receive this grant to study how rocks impact the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

As a result of a chemical reaction between seawater and mantle rocks, 180-foot towers of carbonate, or “limestone chimneys” have formed on Lost City.

While scientists have gathered surface samples of these chimneys in the past, the Expedition 357 team used robotic rock drills to explore the hard rock around Atlantis Massif. According to Schrenk, previous chimney samples revealed many organisms while the team’s new subseafloor results showed very few.

One of Schrenk’s students is now growing organisms from the plumes of methane and hydrogen that were observed during the team’s drilling process. Twing, who has since received her doctorate from MSU and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, is also extracting DNA out of rock samples from the trip to sequence various organisms.

“We’re trying to figure out who they are,” Schrenk said. “If we are able to identify what organisms are coming from plumes on Earth, we might be able to apply this information to environments elsewhere in the solar system.”