Listen to part of a lecture in a Biology Class.
Okay… we’ve been talking till now about the two basic needs of a biological community: an energy source, to produce organic materials— you know, uh, “food”—for the organisms… and… the “waste-recycling”, or breakdown, of materials back into inorganic molecules…
And about how all this requires photosynthesis— when green plants or microbes convert sunlight into energy… and also requires microorganisms—bacteria— to secrete chemicals that break down or “recycle” the organic material, to complete the cycle.
[verbalizing what she assumes the students are thinking]So,now we’re done with this chapter of the textbook: we can just…review for the weekly quiz… and… move on to the next chapter, right?
Well, not so fast…
First, I’d like to talk about some discoveries that challenged one of these fundamental assumptions about what you need in order to have a biological community… and—well,there actually were quite a few surprises.
It all began in 1977, with the exploration of hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
Hydrothermal vents are cracks in the Earth’s surface that occur —well—well, the ones we’re talking about here are found deep at the bottom of the ocean… and these vents, on the ocean floor… they release this incredibly hot water— three to four times the temperature that you’d boil water at!—… because this water is being heated deep within the Earth.
Well. About thirty years ago, researchers sent a deep-sea vessel to explore the ocean’s depths— about 3 kilometers down—way deep!—to the ocean floor. No one had ever explored that far down before— nobody expected there to be any life down there—because of the conditions.
First of all, sunlight doesn’t reach that far down, so it’s totally dark.
There couldn’t be any plant or animal life—since there’s no sunlight— no source of energy to make food.
If there was any life at all, it’d just be some bacteria breaking down any dead materials that might’ve fallen to the bottom of the ocean.
[Sees hand raised]Ann?
And what about the water pressure? Didn’t we talk before about how, the deeper down into the ocean you go, the greater the pressure?
And not only the extreme pressure, but also the extreme temperature of the water around these vents— if the lack of sunlight didn’t rule out the existence of a biological community down there, then these factors certainly would… Or so they thought.
[incredulous]So you’re telling us they did find organisms that could live under those conditions?!
They did indeed—something like three hundred different species!
[incredulous, confused]But—but—how could that be? I mean— [recalling the lesson review]without sunlight—no energy—no, no—
[interrupting, delivering the “punchline”]What they discovered was that microorganisms—bacteria— had taken over both functions of the biological community— the recycling of waste materials, AND [revelation] the production of energy;
THEY WERE THE ENERGY SOURCE.
[explaining]Y’see… it turns out that certain microorganisms are chemosynthetic; they don’t need sunlight because they take their energy from chemical reactions.
So, as I said, unlike green plants, which are photosynthetic, and get their energy from sunlight, these bacteria that they found at the ocean floor—these are chemosynthetic, which means that they get their energy from chemical reactions.
[falling intonation]How does this work?
As we said, these hydrothermal vents are releasing into the ocean depths this intensely hot water— and… here’s the thing: this hot water contains a chemical called hydrogen sulfide, and also a gas—carbon dioxide.
Now, these bacteria actually combine the hydrogen sulfide with the carbon dioxide, and this chemical reaction is what produces organic material, which is the food for larger organisms.
The researchers had never seen anything like it before!
[impressed]Wow! So just add a chemical to a gas, and—bingo!—you’ve got a food supply?!
Not just that—what was even more surprising were all the large organisms that lived down there.
The most distinctive of these was something called the tube worm.
Here, let me show you a picture…
The “tube” of the tube worm is really really long— they can be up to one and a half meters long. And these “tubes” are attached to the ocean floor.
Pretty weird-looking, huh?
And another thing—the tube worm has no mouth or digestive organs!
So, you’re asking, how does it eat?
Well, they have these special organs that collect the hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, and then transfer it to another organ… where billions of bacteria live.
These bacteria that live inside the tube worms: the tube worms provide them with hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, and the bacteria…well, the bacteria kind of “feed” the tube worms through chemosynthesis —remember? That chemical reaction I described earlier…