Experimental ecology at deep-sea hydrothermal vents: A perspective
In situ and laboratory experiments conducted over the past quarter of a century have greatly increased our understanding of the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal systems. Early experiments suggested that chemosynthetic primary production constituted the principal source of organic matter for biological communities associated with vents, although subsequent studies have revealed many complexities associated with interactions between microbes and higher organisms inhabiting these ecosystems. A diversity of host-microbial symbiont relationships has been identified and experimental studies have revealed the exquisite physiological adaptations within the giant tubeworm, Riftia pachyptila, for the uptake, fixation, and assimilation of carbon. In vitro experiments demonstrated the unusual sulfide binding properties of tubeworm hemoglobin that prevent inhibition of the cytochrome-c oxidase enzyme system during transport of sulfide to symbiont-bearing tissues. Studies of respiration and growth of several species of vent organisms conducted over the past two decades transformed earlier views that low metabolism and slow growth are characteristics of all organisms inhabiting all deep-sea environments. Results of recent experiments suggest that metabolic rates correlate with the degree of mobility of the organisms rather than with any specific attribute of the deep-sea environment itself, and growth rates of certain vent organisms (e.g., R. pachyptila) were found to be among the highest in any marine environments. While extreme thermal tolerance has been suggested as characteristic of certain vent fauna (e.g., alvinellid polychaetes and alvinocarid shrimp), the majority of vent metazoans live at temperatures below 20°C and additional experiments are necessary to reconcile field experiments documenting thermal tolerance in situ, thermal tolerance in vivo, and thermal sensitivity of biochemical constituents of vent organisms. Transplantation and clearance experiments, as well as in situ characterization of vent fluid chemistry, have greatly increased our understanding of organism-environment interactions. Early analyses of metazoan egg size and larval morphology, coupled with in vivo larval culture experiments, available physical oceanographic data, and genetic studies of gene flow, have contributed greatly to our understanding of mechanisms of dispersal between widely separated vent sites. The documentation of invertebrate colonization and succession of new vents following a volcanic eruption, and a series of manipulative field experiments, provide considerable insights into the relative roles of abiotic conditions and biotic interactions in structuring vent communities. Recent and emerging technological developments, such as in situ chemical analyzers, observatory approaches, and laboratory-based pressure culture systems, should provide invaluable new experimental tools for tackling many remaining questions concerning the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal systems. © 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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