The Puerto Rico Trench and Denizens of the Deep

(Public domain - from U.S. Geological Survey)
Puerto Rico Trench. (Click once or twice for full image) U.S. Geological Survey

The Puerto Rico Trench is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, and is only surpassed in its depth by the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. It is 500 miles long, and at its deepest plummets 28,232 feet down.

After receiving my doctorate with a special interest in deep-sea physiology, I was invited on board the oceanographic Research Vessel (RV) Gilliss for an expedition to the Puerto Rico Trench. I was accompanied on that research cruise by Dr. Robert Y. George, a deep-sea biological oceanographer from Florida State University.

I had been studying the effect of very high pressure on invertebrate hearts. As luck would have it, the largest population of deep-sea creatures indigenous to the deepest places in the ocean are invertebrates (animals lacking  vertebrae, backbones.) But on the way down to the deepest reaches of the trench, you encounter some very strange creatures indeed, such as the Humpback Angler Fish.

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These bizarre and frightening looking fish inhabit the abyssal pelagic zone (or the Abyss) between 13,000 and 20,000 feet. But below the water containing these abyssal fish lies the zone of the deep trenches, the hadalpelagic zone between 20,000 and 36,000 feet, the deepest point in any ocean.

“Denizens of the Deep” are known in merfolk tradition as the beasts that swallow up the sun at the end of the day, which is somewhat ironic since sunlight never reaches down to the abyssal and hadal zones. Whatever light is there, is produced by bioluminescence. Down there, light means either a meal, or a trap. And since meals are uncommon in the sparsely populated ocean depths, predators seem designed to ensure they miss no opportunities to feed. Their jaws, fangs, and other anatomical structures seem especially designed to snag a hapless passer-by, and provide no chance of escape for those caught.  Fortunately for us, animals adapted to the high pressure, low oxygen environment of the deep ocean cannot survive in shallow waters.

But imagine for a moment that something perturbed that natural order. Time has separated us from man-eating dinosaurs, but the only thing separating us from deep-sea monsters, ferocious predators that make piranhas look playful, is something as simple as pressure and oxygen.  Could things change?

Well, not to scare you, but until 1983 or so, the Puerto Rico Trench was a huge pharmaceutical dumping ground. Massive quantities of steroids and antibiotics, and chemicals capable of causing genetic mutations, came to rest on the sea floor, or were dispersed in the waters above and around the trench.

Read more about that here:

You don’t need to take just one person’s word for it. Professor R.Y. George himself commented on the issue in his resumé.

July 5 – July 30, 1977. Revisited Puerto Rico Trench (now Pharmaceutical Dump Site) aboard R/V GILLISS of the University of Miami to study Barophylic (pressure-loving)bacteria (Dr. Jody Demming’s Ph. D. work from Dr. Rita Colwell’s Lab. in the University of Maryland), and to study meiofauna, macrofauna and megafauna (in collaboration with Dr. Robert Higgins of the Smithsonian Institution).

Frankly, if I was visiting Puerto Rico, and signed up for a deep-sea fishing trip, I’d ask the boat captain just how deep we’d be fishing. I really wouldn’t want to bring up a Humpback Angler Fish large enough to eat the boat. After all, Angler Fish are fishermen too.

For a NOAA sponsored animated tour of the Trench, play the following high resolution video.


Those Doctors Are Trying to Kill Me!

Be careful what you say before going under anesthesia.

I had reached the age when my internist required me to get a colonoscopy, and I was not looking forward to it. I got gowned up in one of ridiculous back open gowns, for obvious reasons, but had a darkly funny thought when the nurse attached an I.D. bracelet to my wrist. I joked to the nurse, and to my wife, about the bracelet saying DNR, “Do Not Resuscitate.” Haha. See how I make joke when I nervous?

I know, I should have known better than to joke about a DNR, because it is after all a serious, and usually anguish-filled end-of-life decision someone has to make, at some point. It really wasn’t suitable for a joke, But hey, I can kid about my own mortality any time I want. Right?

Well, the joke was on me, because my timing for the joke was really bad. A couple of minutes later I was given an intravenous cocktail of Versed, propofol, and fentanyl. I was out.

In medical parlance, that form of anesthesia is called a MAC – Monitored Anesthesia Care. Which, for me, meant I didn’t care, or know anything at all, for a few minutes.

But when I woke up, things had changed. While I was unconscious, having my body invaded, someone had placed a DNR band on my wrist. And I was not happy about that, not at all. Who gave them permission?

I voiced my complaint to the nurse and my wife who were helping me get off the gurney and walk me to the car. But they didn’t seem to care! They wouldn’t even look at that blasted wrist band. Why was my wife so uncaring about my obvious distress?

At one point as my wife was driving me home, she started laughing at me. Of all the nerve! All I did was try to tell her about the DNR wrist bracelet. And she thought it was funny!

But I still remember my comeback to her. “Laugh jackass, laugh!”

Boy, I sure had her number! That shut her up; until she started tucking me in bed for a nap.

But I didn’t want to sleep. I was mad as Hades! Did you know, someone had put a DNR bracelet on me while I was unconscious?

And then something clicked in her, born of years of raising toddlers and preschoolers. As I was trying to climb out of the bed she held my shoulders down, put her face right in front of mine, and said forcefully,

“No. It does not say that! Now go to sleep.”

She later said I got a very hurt look on my face. And then I laid back, and was out, again.

When I woke up, all was right with the world.

But while I was sleeping that darned DNR wrist band had been cut off my wrist and the evidence destroyed. My wife still claims no knowledge of it.

If I may opine about what happened to me: I believe this is an example of idea fixation brought on by anesthetic agents. It was as if, on induction, a particular mental state was captured, which was in fact a mixture of dark humor regarding my bracelet, which obviously was not a DNR bracelet, and some anxiety over the procedure. Perhaps those anesthetic agents caused the emotional content to morph into something of its own creation, some paranoid delusion which was not abolished until the last vestiges of the drug were eliminated.

If you look up the term “idea fixation” you’ll see, oddly enough, repeated mention of nitrogen narcosis, a diving induced mental state of which I am all too aware. From a scientific perspective, there are qualitative parallels between the narcosis of nitrogen and the narcosis of certain anesthetic agents.  But I don’t know how many events such as the one I experienced have been recorded in the medical literature. If you know, please share with me.

In the meantime, I plan to maintain a tight grip on even the most humorous impulses I might have before undergoing anymore medical procedures requiring sedation. The next time, my wife may not be so understanding.

McMurdo Station, Antarctica: A Research Town

A photo of Jello Wrestling among fully clothed adults was published today as an indictment of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its off-duty recreation program for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Since I’ve spent a little time at McMurdo Station, I’d like to come to the defense of the NSF – by doing nothing more than describing what life in Antarctica is like.

I am not, and have never been an employee of the National Science Foundation, and have never held an NSF grant. I’ve never participated in a Jello wrestling match, although it looks like fun.  So, I am unbiased about this news event. However, I am informed about the rigors of daily life at McMurdo Station.

The following link is to a Washington Times article reporting on a supposed tally of $3 billion of financial excesses within the NSF.

What is most concerning to me, is that the Coburn report focuses on a non-science activity, designed to relieve interminable boredom in a minimalistic environment. I think that, if pressed, the report’s author would have to admit the photo has nothing whatsoever to do with waste in science funding. How much can Jello bought in bulk for the McMurdo cafeteria cost?

Click for a larger image.

As the Google image above shows, men and women who support the McMurdo and South Pole Station are isolated by vast distances from “civilization”. The closest cities with air transportation to the U.S. bases are either in Christchurch, New Zealand, or in Chile. During the winter, with 24 hours of darkness and generally horrible weather, it is virtually impossible for anyone to leave the bases. There are no flights into or out of the continent. So if anyone developes a medical problem or injury too great for the local medical support staff to handle, they are simply out of luck.

During the winter months, the size of support and scientific staff are greatly reduced, so those sharing the bleak winter together get to know each other, well. The contract staff during both winter and summer is composed largely of young, college-age men or women who are healthy, energetic, and are signing on for adventure.

But think about it. With 24 hours of darkness during the winter, the opportunities for recreation are minimal. It typically isn’t safe, or even possible, to go for walks or runs outdoors. A trip away from base, or even close by, could prove fatal if the weather were to change suddenly, which it often does. There are no soccer fields, no ball parks. And even worse, for those of you forever connected to the Internet,  there is barely enough bandwidth down there to support email on a bank of shared computers. Want to send a photo of yourself home to the folks? Forget about it. At least that’s how it was when I was there a couple of years ago.

View from Hut Point, McMurdo. Click for a larger image.

Life in Antarctica, at its best, is a spartan existence in a harsh, unforgiving environment. So how do these young men and women entertain themselves?

The fact of life is that off-duty entertainment, anywhere in the world, can lead to pregnancy, which in Antarctica can easily become a medical emergency.  And medical emergencies can lead to drama very quickly since flights out of McMurdo are nonexistent in the winter and difficult to arrange, and very expensive, even during the summer. So group entertainment that keeps these young healthy adults occupied is a wonderful idea.

I admit I do not know all the facts behind the firing of the Jello Wrestling organizer, reported in various news accounts.  But I have to wonder: why would off-duty entertainment be a reason to very publicly condemn the organization that funds and staffs the McMurdo Station, and funds a large proportion of science research in the U.S.? 

McMurdo Station seen from the Ross Ice Shelf

As a scientist I do not understand the denigration of the noble discipline that helped our country attain greatness, defend itself, and lead our way into the future. If science is to be attacked in public, I would ask that those attacking it be held accountable for the damage they do to science institutions, and to the minds of young men and women on the verge of becoming scientists. As a country we decry our failing leadership in science and engineering, and complain of the poor quality of education in the math and science disciplines, and yet we allow, and even fund,  studies that criticise  programs that have long been working safely and productively in the harshest environment on Earth.

The U.S. Antarctic Program is a success story, in spite of what headlines of the day might suggest.

Why I Worry about Zombie Ants and Mind-Controlling Fungus

I will never look at a mushroom the same way again.

The April National Geographic has a new piece about Zombie ants, ants whose minds are controlled by a fungus which kills the ants in a bizarre way, at a location most suitable for the fungus.


I once wrote a Master’s Thesis at Georgia Tech on yeast, arguably the most primitive fungus, the type of fungus that can drive women wild with infections, and drive all of us to distraction through its ability to ferment grains and juices to make alcohol. It all depends on the particular species of yeast, of course. It depends on genetics.

I, and most any school kid, can vouch for the fact that fungus, in general, is not known for its high IQ. Of course, it has no brain per se, and apparently no neural circuitry at all. So I find it amazing that a fungus can do what our best scientific teams are incapable of doing – controlling minds.

Photo credit David Hughes

Admittedly, ants are not all that smart by human standards, but they are geniuses at being ants. They do have a brain, and typically their goal is to feed and protect their colony using well scripted behaviors. However, walking off into the jungle undergrowth and starting a new fungus colony in an ideal location, for fungus, is not part of their neural programming. And yet, the lowly fungus, against all odds, manages to rewrite the ant’s neural code to serve the fungi’s own reproductive purposes.

Fungus can infect the human brain, and even kill. It is a big killer in immunocompromised, AIDS infected humans, and it kills by causing a potentially fatal meningitis.  Perhaps it feeds off the brain, but human pathogenic fungi do not CONTROL the human brain.

At least one naturalist described the Zombie ants as chimeras – part ant, part fungus. The way I interpret that statement, what the fungus lacks in terms of neural circuitry, visual and olfactory organs, and legs, it acquires by merging with the brain of the ant. So while we routinely manipulate lower life forms like cattle and oxen to do our bidding, it seems like quite a different thing when a lower life form controls a life form vastly more complex.

But what is especially scary is that the difference between fungi that infect the human brain causing coincidental death, and fungi that control the ant brain causing a well manipulated death, is a matter of genetics. And what is one of the hottest scientific fields for now and the forseeable future? Genetic manipulation.

Actually, it’s not the ants I worry about, nor the fungus. What I worry about is what scientists like myself might do with the knowledge that fungi can control brains, even if they are simple ones. The concept of directed mind control by the use of genetically enhanced fungal vectors is simply too Orwellian for me.

Those Curious Manganese Nodules: from Intelligence History to Science Mystery

Shortly before Howard Hughes’ massive ship, the Glomar Explorer, conducted a secret mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine in the Pacific, under the guise of collecting manganese nodules, a much smaller Research Vessel was collecting the real thing, on the Blake Plateau about 150 miles southeast of the Georgia-Florida Coast .

Duke University's R. V. Eastward

In 1970 I was the only biologist on board the Duke University’s Research Vessel, the R.V. Eastward. Also present were geologists from the Lamont Geological Observatory, and a geologist, Dr. J. Helmut Reuter, from Georgia Tech where I was in graduate school.

There is a wealth of information on the association between bacteria and ferromanganese nodules, with some scientists convinced that bacteria precipitate manganese out of solution in seawater, thus leading to nodule creation. Arguably, the best reference on this subject is the book Geomicrobiology by H.L. Ehrlich and D.K. Newman (5th ed. 2009)


Nodules fresh off the dredge
Shipboard laboratory with decontaminated nodules

My mentors at Georgia Tech and I knew bacteria would be found coating the outside of the nodules, but we wanted to know if viable bacteria remained inside the nodules once surface contamination had been removed. My mission onboard the R.V. Eastward was to setup a small bacteriological laboratory and then search for that evidence.

Ultimately, our search was not successful. No viable bacteria were cultured.

But that is the nature of science — you don’t know until you try.

Success or not, how do scientists celebrate the end of a cruise to the Blake Plateau? Well in Nassau celebration involves fine German Beer and even finer Cuban Matasulem Rum. Yes, at the time Matasulem Rum still bearing its Cuban label could be found in the Bahamas.

Factoid for the day: Since Helmut Reuter was a geologist, he taught me that the sand around Nassau, unbelievably soft on your feet, was called oolitic sand.

Bahamas Oolitic Sand, photo credit Mark A. Wilson

 Forty years later what do we know about these curious nodules? For one thing, they are extremely slow growing, growing about a centimeter over several million years. That means the nodules in my possession are on the order of 12 million years old.

Secondly, although scientists are stimulated by the competition to discover the one correct theory among numerous hypotheses for the origin of something mysterious, such as manganese nodules, in this a case it looks like virtually everyone was correct. Nodules seem to form from precipitation of metals from seawater, especially from volcanic thermal vents, the decomposition of basalt by seawater and the precipitation of metal hydroxides through the activity of various manganese fixing bacteria. For any given nodule field, these chemical and biological processes may have been working simultaneously, or sequentially.  For any one nodule, it is presently impossible to tell which processes affected its formation.

Nodules on the Blake Plateau. Photo credit, Lamont Geological Observatory.

We should realize as we hold a 12 million year old rock in our hand, that it is far too much to expect to know details of its history over eons of time.

Manganese nodule like one in the author's collection. Photo credit, Walter Kolle.