By Emily du Houx

October 16th, 2012
“In some ways we know more about the surface of other planets than we do about our own planet,” said Beth Orcutt in the new Bigelow Laboratory.

Beth Orcutt is interested in things few of us can see. Most scientists working at Bigelow Laboratories can claim somewhat similar interests, since they spend their days poring over the genetic makeup of marine viruses, the habits of iron-oxidizing bacteria, or temperature fluctuations in sea water. But Orcutt investigates a particularly well-hidden aspect of the marine world: life buried in mud under hundreds of feet of sea water, concealed from the sun’s illumination, and protected from direct observation by an environment arguably as hostile to human life as the moon’s atmosphere. It is an alien world within the one we know, an ecosystem that has managed to remain tucked away from human eyes for its entire development, until now. “NASA has better maps of Mars than we have of the bottom of the ocean,” Orcutt told Maine Insights in an interview last month at the Center for Blue Biotechnology wing of the new Bigelow facilities in East Boothbay. “In some ways we know more about the surface of other planets than we do about our own planet.”

Orcutt had just returned from a four-week expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on the German vessel Maria S. Merian, during which she and other marine scientists gathered data from observatories that they sunk into the seabed last fall. These sorts of stations have been used for gathering information on geochemical aspects of the ocean — temperature and pressure readings, for instance — but the use of this kind of technology for studying marine life, specifically microbes, is something new. The information gathered on the recent expedition is just the first gain from what Orcutt hopes to be a continuing resource for scientists. In the future, instead of being used solely for data collection, the observatories will be retrofitted to actually conduct experiments in their environment.

“It’s a long time coming,” she said, referring to the fact that preliminary discussion of the project began over five years ago, when she was working in California. Since then, she has worked in Denmark, gone on several international expeditions, and finally landed the position of senior research scientist at Bigelow. Before Orcutt came to the rapidly expanding laboratories, there were not a whole lot of sub-surface microbial studies being conducted at the facilities. “I’m the weirdo in that I’m at the bottom of the ocean,” she said, “but I’m slowly bringing [the other scientists] down to my level.”

Orcutt moved to Maine and started work in East Boothbay a little over six months ago and is part of a wave of new hires being taken on by the laboratory. When asked how she was warming up to her new habitat, she cracked a smile, dropping her usually businesslike demeanor, “So far I like it, but I’ve only been here in the summer,” she added, as if she had been forewarned, “We’ll see how the winter goes.”

The environment on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge makes the winter in Maine seem like a sunny biodiversity fest. “There’s not a whole lot of life out there. Period,” Orcutt said, referring to the apparently barren oceanscape that she is currently studying. What life does exist has barely been studied, and scientists are not really sure what kind of microbes they will see when they get around to analyzing their recently collected samples. There are a lot of theories about what could exist three miles down in the middle of the Atlantic, but this expedition will finally be able to put an end to some of that conjecture.
The data-gathering project is part of a larger effort to understand marine ecosystems around the world. “It’s not just these observatories,” Orcutt said. “There’s a whole system called the Ocean Observatories Initiative to put out sensors and things all over the ocean, whether it’s in the water or at the bottom, to try and get a better understanding of what’s going on there, and there’s also a push to develop autonomous TV cameras that just kind of float around, or drive around, and look at what they see.” There are five of these currently in operation with possibly more on the way.

Like the implementation of the deep-sea observatories on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Bigelow Laboratories itself is pushing into new territories. The facilities at the new Bigelow campus are still under construction. “We’re still figuring out how the lights work and stuff,” Orcutt said. The new setup is geared toward a cross-disciplinary approach, so that, while Orcutt’s lab is technically her home base, other scientists can use it for their studies as well. “We’re trying to break away from the more university model, where every lab is a kingdom unto itself, to try to share resources,” she said, “It’s an open floor plan.” Some offices don’t have doors, and most have walls that are made of glass in order to encourage discussion across areas of specialization.

On a shelf in Orcutt’s office, right above her primary workstation, there are a line of misshapen shot-glass-size cups, made of what appears to be some sort of Styrofoam. “If you took a cup like this,” she said, holding up a 16-or-24-ounce Styrofoam cup, “and you attached it to a ROV or a submarine while it went down to the bottom of the ocean, the increase in pressure … squishes all the air out of the Styrofoam.” The cup is reduced to a quarter of its size or smaller, but retains its shape. She pointed to one of the larger shrunken cups, “So this cup didn’t go very deep, and these cups,” pointing to the smallest ones on the shelf, “went much deeper, because they got so much smaller.” She and her colleagues produce these little art pieces for their own recreation (according to Orcutt, being on a research vessel, “is a lot like going to science summer camp”) and as part of educational outreach. “It’s always a fun project. Oftentimes we’ll get classrooms to make a bunch of cups, and we’ll take them out and crush them and then bring them back, and [the students will] take measurements of how much the cups shrank.” It’s one way that she tries to spread knowledge about the environment and the lifeforms she studies — creatures that seem to happily exist under crushing forces that we can barely fathom.

Information about the new laboratory:

Bigelow received a $4.45 million MTAF grant for the new new Ocean Science and Education Campus, which leveraged federal grants totaling $14.5 million for construction of two additional science buildings.

An independent economic analysis shows that by 2015, combined direct and indirect revenues generated by the new Laboratory is expected to reach $17.5 million per year and support 223 full and part-time jobs.