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Deep-sea vent life entices student.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Kristy Henscheid has gone a long way to look at a worm.

The University of Oregon graduate student is part of a research expedition that's now parked in the Pacific Ocean more than 1,000 miles off Costa Rica, where she's waiting for a chance to go another mile and a half straight down. There, along a sea bottom ridge known as the East Pacific Rise, vents spew out 500-degree water that provides a home for the Pompeii worm, the most heat-tolerant animal on the planet.

Henscheid and UO professor Andy Berglund are part of a team studying the Pompeii worm, hoping to figure out how it survives in some of the most extreme conditions the Earth can dish up. It's not only hot down there, the pressure is crushing and the water is laced with sulfides and toxic heavy metals.

"What makes us want to study them is they've had to adapt to such a harsh and extreme environment," said Berglund, a chemistry professor and member of the UO Institute of Molecular Biology. "Not a lot of higher organisms can survive in conditions anywhere close to that."

Berglund has made two trips on the research vessel Atlantis to the dive site, where he descended to the ocean floor in the submersible Alvin. Henscheid hopes to be assigned to one of the 18 dives that will take place before this year's expedition ends late this month.

She's part of a ship's complement that includes 24 scientists and 13 technicians studying various aspects of the hydrothermal vents and the bizarre communities of life that surround them. Clams the size of dinner plates that reek of sulfur, tube worms that grow up to 8 feet and ghostly crabs and eel-like fish share the narrow but surprisingly rich life zone around the vents.

"There is a lot of stuff down there," Henscheid said in an interview just before her Thanksgiving Day departure.

The Pompeii worm is a hairy-looking creature about as long as a hand and draped in fuzzy gray filaments made up of bacteria. It sports a cluster of tentaclelike scarlet gills around its head.

They live in clusters of papery tubes attached to the sides of the vents, where the water isn't quite as hot. The bottom end of the worm can live in water up to 176 degrees Fahrenheit, but at its head the temperature is a tepid 72 degrees.

Using the labs aboard Atlantis, Henscheid is analyzing Pompeii worm samples as part of her doctoral research focusing on a specific protein involved in the molecular process - called RNA splicing - that selects and pieces together genetic information carried in DNA. Berglund is investigating the same genetic process and hopes that understanding how it functions in the Pompeii worm under such extreme conditions will provide insights into this fundamental cellular process in humans as well.

The research eventually could lead to better treatments for diseases caused by defects in the body's RNA splicing process. About 15 percent of all human genetic diseases are caused by such defects.

In addition to understanding RNA splicing, Henscheid and Berglund are collaborating with UO biology professor Eric Johnson and graduate student Michelle Phillips to find out which genes allow the Pompeii worm to deal with their high-temperature environment. While at sea, Henscheid will run tests to determine which genes are turned on or off in the worm in this extreme environment.

And that means going into the dark, hot world of the vent communities to collect samples.

It takes the sub, which carries two scientist observers and a pilot, about an hour to make the trip. Within 10 minutes the craft is in a darkness lit only by a few instrument panels, and not long after that, the near-freezing cold of the surrounding ocean seeps into the unheated vessel.

"The one thing you do see is the depth meter," Berglund said. "It just keeps clicking and clicking."

Close to the vents things start to warm up. And when Alvin finally settles on the bottom and turns on its spotlights it's like Dorothy landing in Oz.

"It feels like you've been transported to another world," Berglund said. "Close to the vents there's just this explosion of life. There's so much biomass down there it's crazy."

In an e-mail update, Henscheid said she hasn't been assigned to a dive yet but thinks there's a good chance she will be. She's already started running tests on samples brought up from the first few dives.

Henscheid said it was a thrill just getting to the Atlantis, which she boarded at the Mexican port of Manzanillo.

"I have to confess to a measure of fangirly glee when I walked up to get on the ship for the first time and saw Alvin peeking out of its little hangar," she wrote. "It's such a famous ship, and it was exciting to see the real thing up close."

And there are other benefits to spending most of December in the equatorial tropics hanging around hot water vents, something that wasn't lost on Henscheid as she prepared to depart.

"I'm ready to get out of the cold for a while," she said.
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; UO's Kristy Henscheid awaits a chance to go where worms can stand the heat
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 8, 2003
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