A Robot Lab to Survey the Sea Floor

Imagine a robotic lab that can sample ocean organisms on its own and perform DNA analysis of what it finds. William Ussler, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, describes how a prototypical robotic explorer is helping study the life around undersea thermal vents.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Imagine packing a whole bunch of the tools from a molecular biology lab, from a mass spectrometer to a DNA analyzer, packing them into an under sear robot, one that can both sample and analyze on its own at the bottom of the sea. Joining me now to talk about that is Bill Ussler. He's a marine microbiologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

In 1987, David Packard, famous David Packard who funded much of the lab's efforts, challenged it to find ways to bring back data. Not the samples. We don't want sample. I challenge you to bring data back from marine expeditions and this is part of that effort. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

WILLIAM USSLER: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: So David Packard didn't want you to bring any worms back or anything like that.

USSLER: Well, actually, we do bring worms back to learn more about them, but once we have information about them we can use that to paint imagery and look at their distribution on the ocean floor without having to collect samples.

FLATOW: Tell us what this instrument looks like.

USSLER: Well, the deep sea environmental sample processor, we call it the DPSP, is a one meter diameter titanium sphere that's mounted on a frame and the frame is what carries it down to the sea floor. Inside the one meter, 15 inch sphere is an instrument that will collect sea water, filter it, and process that for DNA analysis.

FLATOW: And you do the DNA analysis right there.

USSLER: That's right. That's what's really unique (technical difficulty) we've adapted standard microbiology techniques and they typically require people to conduct them and various types of large pieces of equipment. We have reengineered this and put it on the sea floor so it operates autonomously. And we have a program or which we call a mission, and we start that mission and we just go away and let it do its thing.

FLATOW: So it's currently sitting in the Monterey Bay?

USSLER: That's correct. Right now we have a six month long deployment and it's in Monterey Bay, offshore, connected to our submarine cable network. We call it the MARS cable. And that supplies power and data and communications with the device on the sea floor, and then allows us to interrogate it and receive data back. And also, we can even update the computer code while it's sitting there right from our desks.

FLATOW: Is this a way to find new species or what?

USSLER: OK. At this point right now this is a proof of concept and we're demonstrating that this technology actually works. What we'd like to do in the future is shrink this to one-tenth its size and make it mobile. And in the surface we have a different group of instruments we just call ESP.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

USSLER: And we're already adapting those for shallow water, that is, less than 300 meter deep water, for doing surveys of the upper ocean. We don't have the analytical capability right now to detect new life forms. We can bring samples back, much to the - not according to the mantra that we were given - but that allows us to determine what it is that we should be looking for.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

USSLER: In the future it'll be very nice to develop a strategy to detect the life and new types of DNA sequences without having any a priori knowledge.

FLATOW: Yeah. So this - in the future when you shrink it down and get it past the proof of concept, I'm sort of visioning - envisioning something like a Mars rover but on the ocean floor.

USSLER: That's true. That is a possibility. And we actually operate rover-type technology just like you've seen on Mars. And our rover moves very slowly on the sea floor and that's partly because of its size and the types of technology we're using right now. But there's no real restriction on terms of shrinking this type of device and turning it into a mobile facility that could perform exploration in a systematic and efficient way.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what would you like to find? What would be the A material you'd like to find down there?

USSLER: Well, it would be exciting to find new life forms but, in fact, what would be more interesting is to actually try and figure out why they're there. What are they doing? And that's really a significant intellectual but also very pragmatic question because microbes in the ocean control about 85 percent of the ocean chemistry. And the oceans are changing and we'd like to understand what role the microbes will play in the changing ocean conditions.

FLATOW: That's fascinating. Let's talk about that a bit more. Microbes control 85 percent of the ocean chemistry.

USSLER: That's correct. That's our estimate at this point.

FLATOW: In what way? Give me an idea what you mean by that.

USSLER: Well, the study that we just finished a few years ago was looking at methane oxidation. And so the sea floor, as many of you know, has methane vents on it. We call them coal vents and methane is bubbling out of the sea floor. In other places it's just fusing out. It's a slow rate of release from the sediment where it's produced.

And this is something that's a fuel. It's just like we cook our meals on stoves that use natural gas. That's predominately methane. And these microbes use this as an energy source in the water column. And they act as a biofilter. So very little of that methane makes it all the way up to the surface. And so that is one way in which they control the chemistry of the oceans, is by consuming the methane.

Otherwise, we would have a methane-enriched ocean and it would change the chemistry of the oceans to the extent that different life forms would live in it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Could you find a spot with this technology that you could sort of lurk and wait for something that you would like to see that's not happening at the moment?

USSLER: Yes. We've actually done an experiment like that in 2011 at an ocean ridge system called the Juan de Fuca. It's offshore of Oregon. And there are cracks in the sea floor. It's a salt sea floor and there are vents where hot water comes out. But these are very ephemeral and so you can take - sit and wait at one location and want to take a sample but it may not be hot or flowing significantly.

But these things are ephemeral and so it may start up again. So we have experimented with ways of sitting and waiting and triggering sampling when the conditions are appropriate. Such as, in this case, high temperatures.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how long can it stay down there?

USSLER: Well, right now we're running the system on batteries which allow it to stay on the sea floor for four to five days autonomously. When we connect to the submarine cable it's unlimited in terms of how long it can stay down on the sea floor, but the problem is simply we don't have submarine cables everywhere. And so that is a limitation. However, the U.S. is building a submarine cable infrastructure off of Oregon and Washington.

And they have selected sites that are actually quite interesting for these types of experiments.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR talking with Bill Ussler of the Monterey Bay Research Institute. Wait. Are you saying that there's like a giant extension cord?

USSLER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

USSLER: Yes, exactly. It is under construction right now. And it has shoreside stations where the power gets sent out the cables and it forms a network, interconnected network. And there are nodes where science equipment is going to be installed. And those instrument packages have already been identified and are being manufactured.

FLATOW: So there's really a big effort, at least in the Pacific Northwest there.

USSLER: That's right. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in this sea floor infrastructure on the part of the National Science Foundation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it's a multi-disciplinary effort. A lot of different people involved?

USSLER: Yes. It's a multi-disciplinary effort, a multi-institutional effort, and it is just beginning to really start up to become operational. Still going through some testing and validation of the system.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

USSLER: But once that's operational, then they will - node time will be allocated on a grant proposal basis.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You know, the people are going to say times are tough. There are going to be people that say great, sounds like an interesting experiment. Why spend the money on this? What practical effect is this going to have in my life?

USSLER: Oh, in terms of building an infrastructure?

FLATOW: Yeah. In terms of what you're doing with studying the microbiology down there.

USSLER: OK. In terms of the infrastructure, it gives us the opportunity to do experiments that we couldn't do before because of power and data limitation. And one of the really important things we're facing, you know, as a world is understanding how rapidly the oceans are changing. And by having six points of observation we can develop long-term time series and we can look at trends in ocean temperature and ocean chemistry that will give us some guidance to understand how the oceans are responding to either natural or anthropogenic changes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now you're getting this network. You're going down to look at the microbiology. All we talk about these days is money in science. If I gave you a blank check, what would you do with it?

USSLER: What would I do?

FLATOW: Yeah.

USSLER: Well, I would do two things. The capability of our DPSP right now does not include gene expression. And what this is, is that it is a measure of how the actual genes are being expressed and utilized to make proteins and enzymes in a cell. And this is very important to understand basic microbial what we call biogeochemistry.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

USSLER: And the second part is then to take the ESP and this ability to look at gene expression and then couple it to a system where we can actually culture the bacteria that live in the ocean water and grow them. And learn about their metabolism - you know, what do they eat? And, you know, what kind of dependencies they have on other organisms.

And how might they respond to changes in the ocean. The submarine cable network really gives us a significant advantage because we can connect this type of system to a power source that's not going to limit the overall sort of integrated vision that we have for developing the ability to analyze genes and gene expression on the sea floor and conducting what we call culturing experiments or incubation experiments.

FLATOW: So what's your time scale for moving your lab out from the testing stage?

USSLER: Well, it's ongoing right now. We have efforts to begin to shrink the ESP and develop a new generation of instrumentation. We are not at the point of developing gene expression phase, that ability to do that, but we're getting close with that. And I just began some proof of concept experiments for culturing the cells on the sea floor.

FLATOW: Wow.

USSLER: So, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah.

USSLER: So we're, you know, this blank check question is simply, you know, that would push things along even further. In fact, enable us to do things sooner. But that's the direction we're going in.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

USSLER: OK. Thank you.

FLATOW: Bill Ussler, marine microbiologist at the Monterey Bay Research Institute. That's about all the time we have for this hour.

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