Follow Dr. Katrina Edwards, as she explores the microbial life at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean
Last night around midnight our first core finally came on deck! There was a large science party gathered around to see the core and the processing pipeline. The drillers are the ones that call “core on deck” and this signals the ship technicians to retreive the core to bring it to what is called the “catwalk,” where the core liner is laid out for cutting. The technicians then cut the core liner into 1.5-meter-long sections and carry them into the core lab.
There the technicians and the chief microbiologist and petrologist examine the rocks and select priority samples for microbiology to remove from the section. We base decisions on lithology, alteration, fragment size, and try to select all samples for microbiology that can be paired with a representative sample for petrology. This is so we can cross-compare our observations and analyses to get a comprehensive idea of not only what kind of microbes are out there in the deep biosphere, but what the nature of their habitat is from a chemical and physical perspective.
After samples are selected for microbiology, they are photographed and then wisked away to the refrigerator in the microbiology processing lab. There we have a fairly unique set-up for dealing with rocks – its not exactly what they teach you about microbiological sampling and cultivation in college classes in microbiology! We use a steel sampling tray with a 2 inch lip and ½ inch welded steel plate on the bottom center to break up our rocks. The entire tray is first flame sterilized by covering it in ethanol and lighting it with a barbeque lighter.
It makes quite the impression on the newly initiated, as flames flare from the box. And it used to cause the technicians quite some anxiety. But we are safe and have many fail-safe procedures in place to make sure the flames are controlled – such as a lid on the tray that can be lowered to put out any flame at any time in the sterilization process.
After our box and tools are all sterile, we begin the unelegant process of rock-hammering to break our samples into sizes for splits for different people and different intended analyses. It is LOUD when we are banging rocks and we get lots of visitors stopping by to see what all the racket is about. After we are done with one rock, we simply wash our tray and begin again with sterilization for the next sample.
It is a bit tedious but there is something a bit primal about banging on rocks that I kind of – no well I do – like banging on rocks. That might be why I’m a rock microbiologist!
Here on the ship they serve meals every six hours to accommodate the 24-hour shift schedule that the ship operates on. Unfortuantely the coring routine has been messing up our meals – core has this sneaky way of arriving right at meal time and well, science comes first. Meals are good here too – having someone else cook an excellent meal and do the dishes for me everyday is definitely something I could get used to permenently, I’ve decided!