The colonisation of hydrothermal vents by complex life: a natural experiment in macroevolution

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Life Sciences

Abstract

Our proposal unites a multidisciplinary team of researchers from mineralogy, palaeontology, deep-sea biology and genetics to provide an integrated picture of when and how some of the most remarkable environments on our planet were colonised by highly-specialised animals, and inform modern deep-sea conservation challenges.

The discovery of hydrothermal vents in the deep sea during the late 1970s revolutionised our understanding of the limits of life on our planet. These explorations uncovered incredibly lush ecosystems supported by chemosynthesis, a carbon-fixation process previously deemed insignificant, and faunas with many novel adaptations to surviving in this dark habitat characterised by the ejection of extremely hot, toxic fluids from the seafloor. Despite their seemingly-hostile conditions, we now know that animals have thrived around vents for at least 440 million years, and that diverse taxonomic lineages have continually adapted to this environment over the course of Earth's history. Surprisingly, rather than functioning as evolutionary refuges in which ancient relict faunas have survived in isolation from large-scale environmental changes, evolution at vents appears to have occurred numerous times. This suggests that vents have an intriguing role as incubators of evolutionary novelty, their importance in evolution also highlighted by theories that life itself originated within this setting.

Since their initial exploration, significant milestones have been achieved in surveying these ecosystems and in understanding the intimate interactions that modern vent faunas have with the microorganisms that support them. However, answers to fundamental questions of when animals first transitioned to occupy this environment, the processes driving the adaptation of new vent animals and the biological basis for vent colonisation are still lacking. A grasp of these principles is vitally important to understanding how animals adapt to unstable temperature regimes, and of how large-scale environmental changes affect the deep sea, the world's largest ecosystem. This is particularly pertinent today as the deep sea is increasingly affected by human activities, but how it responds to impacts such as climate change and mining operations is unknown.

To gain vital evolutionary insights into the colonisation of hydrothermal vents, both in the modern ocean and throughout Earth history, we propose a comprehensive research programme guided by four hypotheses: H1) animals colonised hydrothermal vent environments soon after the Cambrian Explosion of life; H2) new vent habitat formation has repeatedly driven vent animal evolution over time; H3) ancient vent animals exhibited similar associations with microorganisms to modern vent animals to survive within harsh vent environments; and H4) adaptation to vent environmental regimes is evolutionarily rapid.

We will assemble primary data for this project from field studies of key geological localities in Norway, Canada and Tasmania, which likely contain the oldest known bone-fide vent animals, and the southern Ural Mountains where a remarkable 100 million year fossil history of ancient vents is preserved. Together, these regions contain some of the best-preserved ancient hydrothermal vent deposits in the world. Collected fossil samples will be subjected to new detailed palaeontological investigations, and high resolution sulphur isotopic analyses. To investigate recent and ongoing adaptation at modern hydrothermal vents we will work on samples of traditional non-vent fauna that we can observe colonising new hydrothermal systems, using advanced DNA techniques.

Planned Impact

Our proposed research delivers wider societal benefits in two specific areas:

1) Informing and inspiring wider audiences through public engagement with deep-ocean and palaeontological research. We have established a programme of public engagement with our research that will raise awareness of our research insights and their context, delivering the wider societal benefits of engagement through three strands:

i) Presenting and discussing our research directly with public audiences through a series of talks and events. These "face-to-face" engagement activities target specific groups including: our local communities in the UK; recreational users of the marine environment and individuals with specific interests in palaeontology, at events such as Lyme Regis Fossil Festival; retirees / life-long learners, and school pupils and teachers. The NHM is an excellent platform to reach all of these groups.

ii) A network of resources for online engagement, including a dedicated project component of the NHM webpages, enabling people to follow "live" updates from our fieldwork; social media feeds enabling direct dialogue with individual research team members in the field; and blog and video content delivered through the NHM Discover channel. A core engagement website for JC's previous deep-sea research has received more than 300,000 visitors from 90+ countries, and been highlighted by RCUK as an example of "best practice" in generating impact impact through public engagement.

iii) Work with "traditional" media: at key milestones in our research (e.g. fieldwork and publication of papers), we will produce press releases and work with science journalists to generate extensive coverage of our work in print, online, and broadcast news outlets, thereby raising awareness of our research findings and their context among global non-academic audiences.

2) Providing answers to the fundamental question of the evolutionary significance of hydrothermal vent fauna, to inform relative deep-sea conservation priorities alongside traditional metrics such as biodiversity and ecosystem function. We will engage with key interest groups in this area to aid the development of international policy for environmental protection of the deep ocean. Interest groups include non-governmental organisations (NGOs), policy-makers, regulators and industry, which we will engage through a one-day workshop that aims to explore the key question of phylogenetic diversity at hydrothermal vents in a conservation perspective. More specifically:

i) Our results will help to underpin the formulation of regulations by national governments as well as international regulatory bodies such as the United Nations International Seabed Authority (ISA) for "exploitation phase" licensing of mineral resources in international waters, by contributing advanced understanding of the evolutionary novelty and therefore value of deep-sea hydrothermal vent communities.

ii) We will ensure that our results contribute to policy development through our engagement of stakeholder groups such as the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) of the INDEEP program (International network for scientific investigation of deep-sea ecosystems), which provides input to that process.
 
Description Membership of UK Cross-Government Working Group on Deep-Sea Mining
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description NERC Isotope Community Support Facility (ICSF)
Amount £25,000 (GBP)
Funding ID IP-1755-1117 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2018 
End 04/2019
 
Description Science Exploration Education (SEE) Initiative, Open Explorer Project, National Geographic. https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/icelandvents
Amount $2,000 (USD)
Organisation National Geographic 
Sector Private
Country United States
Start 01/2019 
 
Description Collaboration with Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada. 
Organisation Memorial University of Newfoundland
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Samples of potential vent fossils were analysed by our team using micro-CT scanning, scanning electron microscopy, electron microprobe and secondary-ion mass spectrometry.
Collaborator Contribution Samples from the Tally Pond volcanic belt, central Newfoundland were collected by the partner and made available for our project. The partner had done some sample preparation and provided access to instruments at Memorial University.
Impact Data are being analysed for forthcoming publications.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Collaboration with Ocean Networks Canada 
Organisation University of Victoria
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have undertaken DNA barcoding of a new sponge species collected by the University of Victoria Ocean Networks Canada team on a research expedition to the Endeavour hydrothermal vents in July 2018. Samples are now being processed for microbiome sequencing.
Collaborator Contribution University of Victoria Ocean Networks Canada (led by ONC staff scientist Dr Fabio De Leo) collected samples of a new sponge species from the Endeavour hydrothermal vent for us in July 2018 using the deep ocean remotely operated vehicle ROV Hercules. We requested these samples as part of a new collaboration and the ship-time provided by ONC is equivalent to approximately 10,000 USD.
Impact Samples are being analysed for forthcoming publications. Genetic sequences have been obtained and data suggest the animals collected are new to science.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Collaboration with Queen Mary University, London. 
Organisation Queen Mary University of London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We provided samples of ancient vent microbial fossils to this project and analysed data for publication.
Collaborator Contribution Queen Mary provided access to their Focussed-Ion-Beam (FIB) scanning electron microscope (SEM) for this part of the project.
Impact Data were published in Georgieva et al., (2018) as listed in the publications outputs.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Collaboration with Senckenberg Institute, Germany. 
Organisation Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum Senckenberganlage
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have undertaken DNA barcoding on a new sponge species collected from the East Scotia Ridge hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean.
Collaborator Contribution Senckenberg are providing material for study from the vent sites and undertaking taxonomic descriptions.
Impact Data are being analysed for forthcoming publications.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Collaboration with University of Bergen, Norway. 
Organisation University of Bergen
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Samples of the hydrothermal vent worm Sclerolinum are being analysed by our team for transcriptomics and SNP genotyping.
Collaborator Contribution University of Bergen partners collected samples of these hydrothermal vent tubeworms for us in July 2018 from vent sites Loki's castle and Håkon Mosby mud volcano in the Arctic.
Impact Data are being analysed for forthcoming publications.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Development of NHM webpages on hydrothermal vents 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We created a website describing our NERC project research as part of the NHM webpages [http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/our-work/origins-evolution-and-futures/exploring-the-evolution-of-animals-at-deep-sea-hot-springs.html], and Magdalena Georgieva was also consulted during the development of NHM webpages on hydrothermal vents [http://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/survival-at-hydrothermal-vents.html].
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/our-work/origins-evolution-and-futures/exploring-the-evolution-of-a...
 
Description Development of a National Geographic Open Explorer blog about Iceland's shallow hydrothermal vents research 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A blog was created by Magdalena Georgieva outlining the planned fieldwork to shallow hydrothermal vents in Iceland. This blog is currently followed by over 30 people from around the world, who are interested in the research that we will conduct at this intriguing site.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/icelandvents
 
Description Interview for BBC News Online article about hydrothermal vent animals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Magdalena Georgieva was interviewed by Jonathan Amos from the BBC about the adaptations of hydrothermal vent animals for a BBC News Online article titled "Marvels of the deep and their superpowers".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45400954
 
Description NHM Nature Live, February 2019 half term 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Magdalena Georgieva participated in a Natural History Museum Nature Live public event, whereby she was interviewed about hydrothermal vent environments, the animals living there and what it is like to work on scientific research vessels.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Natural History Museum - Family Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Researcher Co-I Dr Georgieva hosted an event in the Flett Theatre, Natural History Museum, talking to families about taking part in fieldwork on the project, including recently-conducted first fieldwork to Tasmania.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/events/family-festival-oceans.html
 
Description Natural History Museum Nature Live - Attenborough Studio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Researcher Co-Investigator Dr Georgieva gave a public presentation on the project at the Natural History Museum's Attenborough Studio to an audience of general public, with significant international and demographic range.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Natural History Museum Science Uncovered 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr Georgieva and Dr Glover presented the project at the large annual Natural History Museum Science Uncovered event at a packed stand where we displayed specimens, videos of hydrothermal vents and papers related to the project. This was a special Oceans Night for Science Uncovered.The museum was open until late in the evening with several thousand people in attendance. Our stand was packed throughout the night.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/events/science-uncovered.html
 
Description Participation in NHM Late event, November 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact During this event, Magdalena Georgieva showed hydrothermal vent specimens to the general public and discussed her research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Participation in NHM Live event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact During August 2018, Adrian Glover took part in an NHM Live event during which he discussed his hydrothermal vents research. During these events, a scientist is interviewed about their research and the show is streamed live on the internet.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9wt1hh-pC0
 
Description Participation in ORT Jump mentoring programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact As part of the ORT JUMP mentoring programme, Magdalena Georgieva has mentored two 6th-form college students. These students attend meetings with the mentor to learn about what the mentor's job and working environment is like, the types of careers that exist in the field, and gain practical advice about how to work in this field if interested.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
URL http://ortuk.org/who-we-support/uk/ort-jump/
 
Description Participation in commonwealth heads of state events during their summer 2018 London meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact As part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London during summer 2018, Adrian Glover participated in an evening event at the Natural History Museum during which he showcased deep sea and hydrothermal vent research to the visiting politicians. At a further day event for the spouses of the politicians, Adrian Glover and Magdalena Georgieva also discussed their research with them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Participation in content for Life in the Dark exhibition, Natural History Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact For the Natural History Museum's 'Life in the Dark' exhibition, Adrian Glover and Magdalena Georgieva participated in films on deep sea and hydrothermal vent environments. As part of the film on hydrothermal vents, our NERC project research was highlighted.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/life-in-the-dark.html