Breathless: Mike’s Journey to Find Elusive Bacteria in the Oxygen-less Ocean

By Paige Jarreau. LSU biological sciences graduate student Mike Henson recently conducted field research in the great big blue! Mike works in Dr. Cameron Thrash’s lab. We asked him to tell us more about his field experience at sea below. Enjoy!

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Port is now behind us! The R/V Oceanus and crew is headed to sea. Credit: Mike Henson.

Waves stretch far into the horizon. The sun’s rays pierce the crystal clear blue water. The ocean here gives no hints about its oxygen-less waters beneath its depths. Yet, about 100 miles west of Manzanillo, Mexico in the Eastern Northern Tropical Pacific is one of largest anoxic bodies of water, or oxygen minimum zones (OMZ), in Earth’s oceans.

OMZs form when nutrient rich bottom waters from the Pacific Ocean are brought up to the surface, causing large blooms or growth explosions of photosynthetic algae. As the algae begin to die, other microscopic organisms (or backterioplankton) in the water consume oxygen to metabolize organic matter produced by the algal cells. Once you reach 100 meters below the surface, oxygen levels begin to decrease. At 300 meters, the oxygen has been completely consumed. Any organisms such as fish passing through these areas that are incapable of living without oxygen will die unless they can escape to the more oxygenated surface waters.

This may sound familiar to many Louisianans. However, unlike the hypoxia (a.k.a. the “dead zone”) that occurs seasonally in the Gulf of Mexico from nutrient pollution, this naturally occurring oxygen minimum zone is present year-round.

In the Thrash lab, we study the microbiology of northern Gulf of Mexico hypoxia. We are also collaborating with Chief Scientist Dr. Frank Stewart of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who has National Science Foundation funding to study the oxygen minimum zone in the Eastern Northern Tropical Pacific. Scientists from eight different countries, including USA, Canada, Mexico, Iceland, Denmark, Austria, Spain, and Germany, myself included, recently spent three weeks aboard the R/V Oceanus collecting water and sediment to elucidate the organisms and processes involved in forming this peculiar area of the ocean….

See the full interview with Mike and Paige Jarreau, including some epic photos, at The Pursuit LSU College of Science Blog HERE.

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