The success of this hole quickly sparked excitement across the global scientific community.
“The previous record for the deepest hole drilled into this type of rock was set 40 years ago, in the early 1990s so recovering this amount of rock in two months at sea is astounding,” said Jessica Warren, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences. “I was getting periodic updates from Kuan-Yu when he was on the ship. It was fairly routine news at first, but then it became clear that he was involved in a record-breaking expedition — plus an extraordinary amount of work given how much rock the team needed to describe. But this opens up years of research into the physics, chemistry, and biology of the ocean floor.”
Lin agreed, saying these samples will serve many purposes and help different fields of research.
Life on earth
With regards to researching the origin of Life on Earth, Lin said that once these rocks are exposed to seawater, a reaction called serpentinization happens and produces molecules such as methane, hydrogen gas, and other simple organic molecules without the aid of biological catalysis.
At the Atlantis Massif, these reactions contribute to the development of a unique hydrothermal venting system, known as the Lost City Hydrothermal Field. Here, those molecules are used by microbes to build a sustainable environment, or life in the seafloor. By examining the samples, scientists can see how the rocks are reacting with seawater and how the microbes are distributed.
“That’s pretty significant because most life as we know it on Earth is mostly related to sunlight. So this is one of the lifeforms that is independent of sunlight,” said Lin. “Scientists think that this could be analogous to the early forms of life. Billions of years ago, when the Earth was hot, there might have been some rocks on the seafloor that were going through this reaction. There is consensus that life on Earth probably emerged from an environment rich in simple organic molecules, and thus scientists have been suspecting that places like the Lost City may be fueling the earliest forms of life.”
Another way the samples will be used is to look at plate tectonics, which is Lin’s primary research focus. Lin said that by drilling so deep into the mantle, researchers will be able to get additional insights into how plate tectonics works. Most of the time, studies of the seafloor and the mid-ocean ridges rely on a limited number of samples collected by dredging, or scraping off whatever rocks are exposed on the seafloor with a metal basket.