20 Biggest Questions in Science...

A friend pointed me to this article in The Guardian about a new book looking into the current biggest questions in science. My friend pointed out that I'm working on #16 (what's at the bottom of the ocean). Its pretty cool to see that question make this list. However, as I looked through the rest of the list I relized the type of work I do is also relevant to numbers 2, 3, 9, and 12. Here's why: 

#2 How did life begin?

One of the hypotheses about where life began on earth is that it started at hydrothermal vents. There are certainly competing ideas, but some scientists like this one because many of the most ancient microbes are heat-loving (as in they do best in extremely hot environments), so seems logical that the first organisms may also have been heat-loving, and hydrothermal vents are a pretty great location if you are a heat-loving microbe! 

#3 Are we alone in the universe?

Life requires an energy source, and it likely also requires liquid water or at least a liquid media in which molecules can diffuse. There are various other locations in our solar system that are thought to have a liquid ocean and geological activity which could satisfy the energy requirements. Anywhere that has underwater volcanic activity could, in theory, have life similar to what we have at hydrothermal vents. Because of this, NASA (and others) are very interested in learning more about life at vents on earth on the hopes of informing our search for extraterrestrial life. I did a short talk for a science communication competition about this, which you can see here.

#9 where do we put all the carbon?

The deep sea has been proposed as a potential location to store excess carbon in an attempt to mitigate climate change. However, before we do that we need to understand what deep sea microbes will do with that carbon. For this reason it is important to study carbon cycling in the deep sea. My first scientific paper looks at how fast microbes from vent chimneys turn inorganic carbon into organic carbon.

#12 How do we beat bacteria?

This one might be a bit of a stretch, but microbes that live at hydrothermal vents can be physiologically very different than other microbes because they have adaptations to exist at high temperatures, pressure, and levels of toxic chemicals. Because of this, they are potentially valuable sources of new compounds for use in industry or even medicine. The next important antibiotic? Who knows!

And finally - #16 What's at the bottom of the ocean?

Every sample of water or mud or rock from the bottom of the ocean (and most other environments for that matter) contains a huge number of previously unknown microbes. Advances in genetic sequencing technology are dramatically increasing the rate at which we find these microbes, but we still have no idea what many of them are doing. Hopefully my work will hall start to figure that out. I'm guessing they weren't thinking of the microbes when they made this list though, it is also true that the larger organisms are very poorly studied.

I'm not sure how the authors of the book came up with this list (maybe I should, you know, read it), but it seemed a good framework to put out there some of the reasons I think the type of work I do is so interesting.

Want to hear more about any of these topics? Let me know in the comments and ill see what I can do.