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See Inside December 2009

What Undersea Vents Reveal about Life's Origins

Analyses of a recently discovered type of hot vent ecosystem on the seafloor suggest new possibilities for how life evolved

Few places on Earth’s continents remain to be explored, and it is unlikely that many new natural wonders await discovery in some forgotten corner. But below the ocean surface is a different story. We know more about the facade of Mars than about the 75 percent of our own planet’s surface that lies underwater. Untold surprises await us there.

One such revelation occurred in December 2000. An expedition mapping a submerged mountain known as the Atlantis Massif, midway between Bermuda and the Canary Islands and half a mile under the surface of the North Atlantic, came across a pillar of white rock as tall as a 20-story building rising from the sea­floor. Using the remotely operated ArgoII vehicle and the manned submersible Alvin, scientists surveyed and sampled the mysterious formation. Although time constraints limited their investigation to a single Alvin dive, the researchers were able to collect enough information to determine that the white pillar was just one of several such structures in the area that were emitting heated seawater. They had discovered a field of undersea hot springs they named the Lost City Hydrothermal Field. It was unlike anything seen before, including the now famous black smokers.

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