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Facts: It's Alive

Dr. Ballard searches for the origin of life in the planet’s most unforgiving environment: the darkness and chill of waters thousands of feet beneath the surface.

Dr. Ballard searches for the origin of life in the planet’s most unforgiving environment: the darkness and chill of waters thousands of feet beneath the surface. (View larger version)

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  • Until 1977, scientists thought all living things ultimately depended on the sun for energy. All that changed when scientists, including Bob Ballard, discovered life living at hot water vents on the ocean floor near the Galapagos Islands. Life at the vents derives its energy not from the sun but from the chemical brew spewing out of the earth.

  • The hottest hydrothermal vents, called black smokers, reach 750°F - hot enough to melt lead.

  • Deep sea giant tube worms can grow to up to eight feet tall. The worms have no mouth or digestive tract, but get their food from sulfur-eating bacteria that lives inside their bodies. They contain so much bacteria that the microbes typically make up half the organism's weight.

  • The longest mountain range on Earth is 40,000 miles long – and underwater. This range – called the Mid-Ocean Ridge system, wraps around the Earth much like a seam on a baseball.

  • Iceland sits on top of not only a massive volcanic hotspot , but also on top of the Mid-Ocean ridge – the biggest single geologic feature on Earth.

  • At Silfra rift in Iceland's Thingvellier Lake, divers and snorkelers can swim between two of the earth's tectonic plates – the North American and Eurasian plates.

  • The hydrothermal vent chimneys discovered in the Mid-Atlantic by the 2011 Celtic Explorer expedition reached over thirty feet high.

  • After unwinding 3000 meters of cable to reach the Mid-Atlantic hydrothermal vents, the Celtic Explorer team found themselves at the end of their rope – the first vents they discovered were 60 feet deeper than their cable would reach, so the at the end of the tether wouldn't view the site. They later were able to reach and film slightly shallower chimneys.

  • At hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic Ocean, scientists discovered a strange species of blind crab that cultivates streamers of bacteria on its chest. Biologists nicknamed the species the "Hoff" crab, after hairy-chested Baywatch star David Hasslehoff.

  • At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, astrobiologist Mike Russell is trying to recreate life's origins. He has built a special reactor that works like a deep sea hydrothermal vent and allows him to test theories of the origins of life. The research helps NASA scientists understand where and what kinds of life might thrive on other planets.

  • The microbes thriving at hot springs are incredibly diverse. In fact, some are genetically closer kin to humans than they are to each other.
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