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The First Results of James Cameron's Deep Sea Dive

By Wesley Fenlon

Some findings from the Mariana Trench reveal clues that could tell us more about the formation of life.

In March, James Cameron dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, becoming only the third person to reach the deepest known spot in the Earth's oceans. He built a new sub, the DeepSea Challenger, to do it. And while some footage of the dive was released after the historic event, Cameron's been holding the scientific results of his finding hostage since March. Okay, maybe that's a bit dramatic--but until now, we haven't heard zip about how the expedition can benefit the oceanographic community. Until now.

Photo Credit: National Geographic

On Tuesday, Cameron talked to a meeting of the American Geophysical Union and revealed a bit of information about the dive. Turns out, not too surprisingly, the sea life population is a bit thin 10,900 meters deep; Cameron found far more life in an earlier dive 8200 meters deep to the New Britain Trench. Still, the project wasn't a lost cause. An unmanned, robotic-controlled dive to a basin called Serena Deep within the Trench returned some interesting results, according to Nature:

“What was very exciting about the Serena Deep dive was we could see outcrops and bizarre microbial mats covering the rocks,” says Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The researchers suspect that the outcrops contain rocks from the mantle that are being altered by a process called serpentinization, in which sea water reacts with minerals and releases hydrogen and methane. Those could provide the energy to feed the microbial communities seen at the site, says Hand.

The findings have implications for the origins of life on Earth and other planets, he says. Researchers have speculated that the process of serpentinization in the early oceans could have supplied the energy and raw materials critical for a primordial metabolism, which could eventually have given rise to the first cells. “Serpentenization is seen to be a possible culprit in that step between geochemisty and biochemistry,” says Hand.

Clues to the origins of life? We won't get our hopes up, but that sounds like a pretty big deal.

Even if Cameron didn't discover anything groundbreaking at the bottom of the trench, the technology that went into DeepSea Challenger will undoubtedly continue to benefit the scientific community. He was the first person to reach the depth since 1960; we doubt it'll take another 50 years for someone to go poking around for more deep sea life in the Trench, this time around.