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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI oceanographers to build laboratory to study subseafloor life

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Narragansett, RI -- September 14, 2004 -- In 2002 URI scientists were the first to lead an ocean drilling expedition dedicated to the exploration of life beneath the seafloor. They found an enormous community of microorganisms whose biomass has been estimated to dwarf the total biomass of the ocean above it.

To further study life beneath the bottom of the sea, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded University of Rhode Island scientists $345,000 to build and instrument a portable field laboratory for research and research training. As an NSF major research initiative, the award will be matched by $148,000 from the University of Rhode Island. The URI scientists who will initially use the field laboratory are geological oceanographers Steven D’Hondt, Arthur Spivack, and John King, biological oceanographer David Smith, and biomedical scientist David C. Rowley.

The laboratory will be fully outfitted for microbiological and biogeochemical sampling of diverse subsurface environments. The facility will be used to sample subsurface life from diverse marine environments, including estuaries, coastal sediments, and deeply buried sediments and aquifers of the deep ocean. The facility will be made nationally accessible for research efforts of scientists and students in related fields.

“The facility will also greatly aid the training of young scientists,” said D’Hondt, principal investigator of the project. “For example, we plan to integrate the laboratory into existing URI courses on microbiology, life in extreme environments, and experimental techniques.”

The laboratory will enhance research on subsurface life that is currently being conducted by URI oceanographers. In 2001 D’Hondt , Spivack, and Smith were given a NASA grant to examine the deep biosphere of the Earth and the "extremophile" communities that thrive in this extreme environment. Because of their pioneering research, the URI Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) was named a member of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

A 2002 article in Science described how D’Hondt, Spivack and former GSO student Scott Rutherford studied activity of bacterial life deep in the sediments at the bottom of the ocean by using the chemistry of water in deep-sea sediments to show that these abundant organisms respire at far slower rates than organisms living at Earth's surface.

The URI Graduate School of Oceanography is one of the country's largest marine science education programs, and one of the world's foremost marine research institutions. Founded in 1961 in Narragansett, RI, GSO serves a community of scientists who are researching the causes of and solutions to such problems as harmful algal blooms, global warming, air and water pollution, oil spills, overfishing, and coastal erosion. GSO is home to the Coastal Institute, the Coastal Resources Center, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, the Pell Marine Science Library, and the National Sea Grant Library.