There's life in the deepest part of the ocean. And some of that life is microscopic. It's not easy to find the world's tiniest organisms on land and it's even harder when they live in one of the most out of reach places on Earth. Julie Huber, a marine microbiologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, specializes in finding these itty bitty lifeforms. She talked to us about operating underwater ROVs, doing research off the side of a ship, how understanding the weirdest forms of life on Earth teaches us new lessons about our planet, and what it's like to battle seasickness when your career requires you to spend your life among the waves.
What is the focus of your work?
The big picture is that I'm an oceanographer and I study microbial life in the deep ocean. When I say deep, I mean really deep. I'm mostly interested in places where no sunlight penetrates. I'm especially interested in life living beneath the seafloor within the rocks and fluids that are moving through the crust. The oceans cover 70% of the planet's surface. Oceanic crust is formed by the process of plate tectonics. We constantly have new crust being generated and recycled. Within oceanic crust, seawater is moving through it. It's like a jar of marbles. It's porous, water moves through it. Because there is space and water, there is life.The estimates are that 2% of the global volume of the ocean is in the crust at any single point in time.
The water in the ocean is always moving. New ocean water sinks in the North Atlantic and moves through the conveyor belt, and at some point, it was also move through the crust as it makes its way around the planet's oceans.
Plate tectonics make Earth a really unique place. In our solar system other planets don't have plate tectonics. Ever since I started in this field I've been thinking about life beyond our planet. That is something that I didn't appreciate. You have this fundamental process that keeps exposing fresh rock. Water reacts with it and you get this amazing chemistry that allows life to exist.
There are certainly not plate tectonics going on on Mars right now.