A new discovery of extreme habitats could help us solve three mysteries in one fell swoop – providing new insights into how Earth’s oceans formed, revealing the secrets of extraterrestrial life and revealing potential cancer-fighting compounds.
This is all thanks to a team of researchers at the University of Miami, who have discovered massive brine deep-sea pools in the Red Sea that quickly kill or paralyze anything that enters them, according to a first report by Live Science.
Life exists on the fringes of these aquatic death traps; However, unlucky animals that dive below the surface do not survive and are instead pickled. However, these rare saltwater pools may retain clues about millennia-long climatic changes in the region and may even shed light on the origins of life on Earth, a study published in the journal Nature communication Earth and environment shows.
Uncovers deep-sea brine pools
In case you didn’t know, brine pools are extremely salty lakes that form on the ocean floor. They are among the most extreme environments on our planet due to the fact that they are devoid of oxygen and have lethal levels of salt water. They are also known for their extremophilic microbes, which can shed light on how life began on Earth and how life could develop on water-rich worlds.
Deep sea brine basins are only known to exist in three bodies of water: the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It was assumed that all the deep-sea basins of the Red Sea were located at least 25 km offshore; however, this study has changed that, with researchers discovering the first such pools in the Gulf of Aqaba, a northern enclave of the Red Sea. Here are the salt lakes within 2 km of the coast.
The researchers discovered the brine pools 1.77 km below the surface of the Red Sea during a 2020 expedition aboard ocean exploration organization OceanX’s research vessel OceanXplorer, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle. The new saltwater pools were named NEOM.
“At this great depth, there is usually not much life on the seafloor,” explained lead author Sam Purkis, professor and chair of the Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Miami. Live Science. “But the brine pools are a rich oasis of life. Thick blankets of microbes support a diverse suite of animals.”
Understanding life on earth
Because of their proximity to the coast, these basins may have received runoff from land, which would mix land-based materials into their chemical composition. As a result, they can potentially serve as an archive of tsunamis, floods and earthquakes over thousands of years.
Purkis noted that the core samples taken from the newly discovered brine basins provide “an unbroken record of past rainfall in the region, stretching back more than 1,000 years, plus records of earthquakes and tsunamis.” And according to the team’s findings, major floods from heavy rain occur “about once every 25 years, and tsunamis [take place] approximately once every 100 years”, which could change the perspective of the massive infrastructure projects currently under construction on the coast of the region.
The implications of the discovery don’t stop there, as the pool could also provide microbial discoveries that could aid in the development of new drugs and treatments. For example, deep-sea microorganisms living in brine pools have previously yielded molecules with antibacterial and anticancer effects. And on a cosmic scale, the saltwater pools may also help us unlock the secrets of extraterrestrial life.
“Our current understanding is that life arose on Earth in the deep ocean, almost certainly under anoxic — without oxygen — conditions,” Purkis explained. “Deep-sea brine pools are a great analogue for the early Earth, and despite being devoid of oxygen and hypersaline, teem with a rich community of so-called ‘extremophile’ microbes. Studying this community therefore provides a glimpse into the type of conditions in which life first appeared on our planet, and may guide the search for life on other ‘water worlds’ in our solar system and beyond.”