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Drilling For Answers

With the Moore Foundation’s $3.9 million gift, Katrina Edwards of USC College will lead a first-of-its-kind investigation of microbes below the Atlantic seabed.

Drilling For Answers


This time next year, Katrina Edwards expects to be aboard the German research vessel for deep-sea coring, R/V Merian, cruising above the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

Edwards, an associate professor of biological sciences and earth sciences in USC College, and other microbiologists will probe the mountain range beneath the sea, searching for life and a greater understanding of the evolution of life on Earth.

But first they had to find the funds to drill a series of holes and build a subseafloor observatory — and that is where the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation threw the project a philanthropic life preserver.

The Moore Foundation, which seeks to advance environmental conservation and cutting-edge scientific research, has donated $3.9 million to establish the beneath-the-seafloor observatory, including drilling equipment.

“Professor Edwards is pursuing one of the most fascinating problems in science,” said David Kingsbury, chief program officer of science in the Moore Foundation, based in San Francisco. “With the recognition that the subseafloor ocean may teem with microbial life comes new, fundamental questions about the evolution and distribution of life and the operation of the carbon cycle.”

Edwards and her colleagues from the United States and Germany were eager to move forward with the project, in the planning stages since 2005. They searched for “the best site on Earth” to study their subseafloor biosphere questions. They chose a site below the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, where parts of the ocean floor faulting have been hydrologically active for 7 million years.

There, sediment has accumulated in isolated ponds over rock for as much time.

“Evolutionally speaking, we can learn something unique about how microbes get into the deep biosphere in the first place,” Edwards said. “Are they propagated from below, or from above?”

These are only a few questions Edwards seeks to answer during the research, which may take 15 years. She also expects they may find a magnitude of new species.

“No one has ever done this before, so we really don’t know,” Edwards said. “We’re going to stay there awhile and study this. And the Moore Foundation has been a huge component in making this happen.”