Jim Childress flips a switch on the outside of an industrial container parked behind his office. From inside the container, a loud whirring noise gets fainter, like a fan is shutting down.
Childress walks around to the side of the container, takes out a key and removes a foot-long heavy lock from the door, then pushes his way through a shield of heavy plastic curtains.
Inside, the room is humming. Pipes and wires cover the ceiling and walls. Pressure gauges blink from every corner. Childress picks his way over to the edge of the container.
“Sea water is brought in here,” he says, pointing at a tank. He traces the path of the pipes. The water comes in, is equilibrated and pressurized to 3,000 pounds of pressure, cooled to about 7 degrees Celsius and passed into a cylindrical steel container that looks like a heavy shell casing.
The shell casing has one-inch portholes, and Childress shines a flashlight on one of them. It lights up the other portholes, and deep inside the tank, a thumb-sized, feather-shaped piece of red fluff appears.
It’s a tubeworm.
The animal is a native of one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet – deep-sea ocean vents, where there’s about 4,000 pounds of pressure and the water is a chilly 2 degrees Celsius, even with melted rock pouring out of the sea floor.
The biology professor and research veteran has managed to recreate that environment in a container in the back of the Biology II building at UCSB. It’s the first time researchers have been able to study the tubeworms, clams and mussels that inhabit the deep-sea vents, without the constraints of studying them from a submersible.
“This is unique,” Childress said. “Nobody else does this.”
In 1979, scientists discovered animals in the vents on the bottom of the ocean floor. In those places, the earth’s plates spread apart and in the cracks, molten hot rock from the earth’s core oozes out.
Scientists found clusters of life around the vents, with tiny bacteria using hydrogen sulfide gas from the vents to get energy and provide nutrients for animals higher up the food chain like tubeworms, mussels and clams.
The site of Childress’ latest collection is 400 miles off the coast of Manzanilla, Mexico. Childress and his team, including graduate students and several co-researchers from other universities, head out for month-long cruises to study the vents.
They use a deep-sea submersible, called Alvin, to dive to the bottom. The sub, a 7-8 foot diameter sphere, holds two scientists and a pilot for eight hours underwater.
“It’s pretty cramped conditions,” Childress said.
Last August, Childress dove at the East Pacific Rise off Manzanilla with a pilot and graduate student Dijanna Smotherman.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Smotherman said. “How many people get to be at the bottom of the ocean?”
Childress has been, and frequently. He was the principal investigator on the first biological trip to the vents in 1979 and he has been on over 50 deep-sea dives. He’s also had four species named after him, including his favorite, Bathymodiolus childressi, a deep-sea mussel that feeds on methane gas seeps.
The last dive was unique though, because for the first time he brought the animals back with him, getting around many of the constraints of Alvin.
It takes an hour and a half to get to the sea floor and an hour and a half to get back up, leaving the scientists with five hours on the ocean floor. For those five hours, they can study the vents and the animals by directing the pilot to take samples and videotape.
But researchers have difficulty controlling tests because of the amount of time they get. So Childress and his graduate students spent months preparing to bring the animals back to his lab, where they could conduct more complicated tests with more variables.
Two months after they were put in the container, the captive animals have fared well.
“The idea of bringing them back here is something we’ve been working toward, but this is the first effective time we’ve done it,” Childress said.
Childress and two graduate students have 25 mussels, 10-15 crabs and 10 tubeworms in the container holding cell.
To study the animals, Childress and his grad students remove them from the container and place them in another study area in his lab in the Biology II building. By altering the concentrations of various gases in the water, they can see how the animals do in a variety of conditions. The main goal is to understand the deep sea floor.
“It’s a major ecosystem,” Childress said, “that isn’t very studied.”