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VI. Black Smoker Chimneys

The black smoker chimneys are the part of the vent system where thermal gradients are the steepest. I want to look now at some of the temperature relationships. The temperature of water coming out of black smoker chimneys has been measured up to about 408 degrees celsius. That's right near the point where even with that much pressure, the water tends not to stay in liquid form but to go into a gaseous state. Now, what are these chimneys made of and why should they be of interest to a biologist and not just to geologists? Geologically, these chimneys are primarily metal sulfides. As the sulfide rich water comes out, it's carrying not just sulfide, but also a lot of metals. In fact, these black smoker chimneys have been mined for their copper for thousands of years. These chimneys are interesting in terms of their geological history because for centuries, people have been aware of these odd structures on islands like Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Geologists really didn't have an idea where these structures came from. They knew that the Mediterranean Sea is a very seismically active area. As buckling has occurred, the black smoker chimneys have been carried to the surface. As they come to the surface, they bring up very rich sources of copper ore. So the black smoker chimneys are of potential commercial value as a source of minerals. Biologically, as you'll see in a few moments, there's also some interesting technological spin off from these chimneys.

The rough texture of these chimneys is due in part to a lot of tubes that are fabricated by annelid worms called Pompeii worms, a very appropriate name for these organisms. These are the Pompeii worms, roughly four or five inches long. They may be the most heat-tolerant of all marine animals.

How do we go about looking at the thermal relationships of vent organisms? One of the points that I want to emphasize is that it's difficult to bring up a deep sea organism in good shape. Someone asked earlier what fraction of deep sea organisms can one bring up alive and maintain in a condition that allows the animal to exhibit its normal in situ characteristics. For the vent animals, that's a very tough challenge because a lot of the organisms not only require high pressure, but also high sulfide. They also may require a very precise temperature range. I should point out that Pompeii worms from black smoker chimneys have never been brought up alive. They've only been brought up freshly dead. I think one of the mistakes that we've made in collecting specimens is that these animals may die of cold death as we bring them up through the water column. So they're very tough animals to work with. We have to use methodologies that allow us to work with either freshly dead animals or specimens that are brought back frozen and then assayed back in our home laboratories on land. What kind of experiments can we do? Well, one of the things that one can do is to take tissues from these animals and isolate certain materials that will give us an image of how a physiological system is adapted to temperature and pressure.


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