Scientists Discover New Microscopic Organisms Deep in the Atacama Trench

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When Chilean scientist Osvaldo Ulloa led an expedition 8,000 meters under the sea to an area where no human had ever been, his team discovered microscopic organisms that generated more questions than answers.

January’s underwater expedition plunged into the Atacama Trench, created by the meeting of two tectonic plates in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

“We have achieved the feat of taking humans into the trench where no other human being has gone before,” Ulloa, director of the Millennium Oceanographic Institute at the University of Concepcion, told AFP. .

He was joined by American explorer Victor Vescovo and Millennium Deputy Director Ruben Escribano on a 12-week voyage off the northern coast of Chile in the 5,900 kilometer (3,650 mile) long trench that s extends to the Equator.

By the time the expedition, named Atacama Hadal, had reached a depth of 100 meters, it was already in pitch black darkness, with the crew members’ vision limited to what the submarine’s powerful LED light could capture.

Further into the darkness emerged remarkable examples of underwater life.

“We came across some geological structures, and there we saw a type of translucent, jelly-like sea cucumbers or sea cucumbers that we hadn’t recorded and that were most likely new species,” he said. Ulloa.

“We also discovered bacterial communities that had filaments that we didn’t even know existed in the Atacama Trench and that feed on chemical and inorganic compounds.

“It opened up a lot of questions: What are these compounds? What type of bacteria are they? We have no idea, we’ll have to go back.”

The expedition also found species of amphipods, a type of crustacean closely related to shrimp, which scavenged for crustaceans, segmented worms, and translucent fish. They were discovered in the same location during an unmanned expedition in 2018.

“Incredibly ambitious”

The Atacama Trench – also known as the Peru-Chile Trench – is where the Nazca and South American tectonic plates converge.

It is a region that has produced many earthquakes and tsunamis.

“We’re going to put three sensors on the South American plate and two on the Nazca plate to see how the ocean floor is deformed,” Ulloa said.

For the moment, “these types of sensors only exist on earth”.

The devices will allow scientists to observe where energy is building up in areas that have not experienced an earthquake, helping to predict where the next earthquake will occur.

“It’s an incredibly ambitious project,” Ulloa said, adding that it’s “the biggest experiment ever in underwater geology here in Chile.”

The sensors are to be placed in the second half of this year.

“There is a lot of interest from the international community to put more sensors in this region to study all the processes associated with the collision of these two plates.”

© Agence France-Presse

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