Centre for Deep Sea Research
Exciting progress in the SUSTAIN project

Looking at the deep biosphere through drill holes in a volcano

Our researcher Steffen Leth Jørgensen is one of the principle investigators of the SUSTAIN project and along with an international team of researchers he will exploit the opportunity to investigate the deep biosphere on the volcanic island Surtsey.

Drillsite at Surtsey
Surtsey 50 years

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In 1963 an explosive underwater volcanic eruption started off the southern coast of Iceland. The eruption continued for five years, after which time a new island rose more than 150 meter above the surface of the sea. The Island was named Surtsey and was immediately declared a nature reserve, and in recognition of its great scientific value UNESCO gave it status as a World Heritage Site in 2008. Since the eruption ceased, this iconic island has provided scientist with a natural laboratory, especially well suited for investigating how, when and by whom new land is colonized and how the inhabitants of the ecosystem change over time – a process known as ecological succession.

This summer a large-scale drilling operation on Surtsey was initiated as part of the SUSTAIN project. One of the main objectives was to install an in situ microbial observatory, and on September 5th this was accomplished and the observatory deployed to a depth almost 200 meters below the surface. This observatory consist of a number of sensors and microbial incubators placed at different depths and allow scientist, not only to get a glimpse at the deep biosphere that otherwise is hidden from the surface world, but also to monitor it over time.  

Our researcher Steffen Leth Jørgensen is one of the principle investigators of the SUSTAIN project and along with an international team of researchers he will exploit the opportunity to investigate the deep biosphere in Surtsey. The project is integrated in Jørgensen’s BFS project (See relevant link), where part of the objectives are to investigate the activity level of the deep biosphere and its potential environmental consequences. Further, it aims at increasing our limited understanding of the deep biosphere in general and more specific with respect to microbial succession in young and pristine environments.

The term “deep biosphere” is somewhat diffuse, but is generally used to describe life buried underneath the surface of our planet and out of reach from the sunlight. The term might be new to most people but in fact the biosphere underneath our feet is much more vast than one would think. Billion upon billion of microbial cells thrive in this subsurface world, hundred to thousands of meters into the ground, but apart fro its existence we know hardly anything about life in the deep. In other words it is exciting time for any researcher who venture into the deep as even the most fundamental of questions remains unanswered. According to Jørgensen one of the most central questions that need to be addressed is if the cells are active? And if so how do they affect our surface world? A number of other fundamental questions need to be addressed, including their abundance, origin and the nature of microbial colonization in the deep biosphere.

Jørgensen is confident that the SUSTAIN project will help to shed light on some of the key questions and when asked how this project can help to increase our current knowledge he highlights two main points: “First of all, the fact that we now have an observatory that we can return to year after year opens up the possibility to monitor the environment over time and hence we can start to understand the dynamics of the system. This is absolutely crucial in our quest to test if the community is active, and if so how active and with what consequences for the environment”.

Secondly, by drilling into an extremely young and pristine environment we will, for the first time, have the possibility to investigate ecological succession with respect to microbial life in the deep biosphere – how do microbes colonize and evolve in newly formed land”

Although the drilling itself is accomplished and the demobilization from the island ended mid September, the real work has just begun. Interdisciplinary research on the native sample material will continue throughout the year. In addition, the observatory is already logging data and the installed incubators hopefully already in a state of early colonization. All in all the SUSTAIN project has set sail successfully providing the scientist a great platform for future investigations.