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Life in the dark: Deep sea vents and the possibility of life beyond Earth

10 March 2014

In the past 40 years, ocean exploration has revolutionised our understanding of how ecosystems adapt to life at deep sea vents. Can life in these extreme environments tell us something about the possibility of ecosystems beyond Earth?

The 2014 Lyell Meeting, 'Deep sea chemosynthetic ecosystems: where they are found, how they work and what they looked like in the geological past', will use the latest research to attempt to answer these questions.

In the cold and dark of the deep ocean, life flourishes where fluids rich in methane, hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen and other chemical compounds are released from the sea floor at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps.

Increasingly, these communities are being uncovered in the geological record, giving important new insights into how and when such life evolved. Some of these records are also an important economic resource, coming from massive sulphide deposits.

Perhaps most intriguing, these deep sea ecosystems may provide information about the possibility of life on other Solar System planets. Once thought to be essential to producing the energy required for growth, photosynthesis does not take place at deep sea vents. Instead, life has evolved through chemosynthesis - using inorganic molecules or methane as a source of energy, rather than sunlight.

Could the growing catalogue of exoplanets suggest that life, at least at the microbial level, might be more abundant than previously thought?

This one day meeting brings together geologists, marine biologists, ecologists, palaeontologists and geomicrobiologists to talk about the most recent achievements in our understanding of chemosynthetic ecosystems, past and present.