Inside: Harvard’s Girguis Deep Sea Lab

Inside Harvard’s Girguis Lab, an interdisciplinary team works to understand a part of our planet that remains mostly unexplored... the deep sea. Professor Peter Girguis, the head of the lab, talks about several projects in this inside look.

When Professor Girguis was a graduate student, he relied on video tapes and film to collect data. Now they are using technologies adapted from space to explore the deepest parts of the ocean. Several of their cutting-edge tools were developed in-house, like a mass spectrometer that can be dropped onto the seabed. The engineers tasked with building these instruments have their work cut out for them: Professor Girguis explained that gear in the deep sea has to withstand over 800 atmospheres of pressure and corrosive salt water.

While the lab focuses on the deep sea, many of their projects have potential applications in space exploration (a tangent not included in the video). Take the whale microbiome research as an example. Research Associate Neha Sarode said that understanding how whale gut microbes respond to fasting could help us figure out how to stay healthy in long voyages to Mars or beyond. Instruments developed in their lab could also be used elsewhere in the solar system, like in the subsurface ocean on Europa.

I want to thank Professor Girguis for giving me a chance to film this video. I also want to thank the other staff in the lab. Patrick Gray, a lab technician, helped with planning the video shoots, and the staff of the lab was gracious enough to let me follow them around with video cameras. 

TRANSCRIPT

PETER GIRGUIS: 80 percent of our planet's living space is the deep sea. So everything else that you normally think of, from deserts to tundras, the rain forests, coral reefs... all of that is in the other 20 percent. But when we look at the deep sea we often think what an extreme environment. But I would say it's backwards: they're the normal ones.

My name is Peter Girguis. I'm a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology here at Harvard University.

When we work in the deep sea, we're dealing with up to 800 atmospheres of pressure.

The projects that we're working on in this lab are aimed at taking the technologies scientists have developed for space exploration or even for oil and gas exploration and using them to understand life in the deep sea.

I actually started off wanting to be an astronaut. But, I began to realize what I really like is exploration. Once I started taking classes in marine science I thought, “Holy cow!” To me that was a no-brainer.

One of our most unique tools and, frankly, the only one of its kind in the whole world, is a 20 foot shipping container. We've taken that and gutted it and turned it into a mobile deep sea research lab.
 
We've built in gas delivery systems, lighting systems, environmental monitoring systems, all sorts of chemical sensors, and in this laboratory this box this refrigerated box, we're able to bring animals up from the deep ocean and put them in pressure vessels. No other lab does this as often nor as effective as we do.

Lately we've been thinking a lot about the Great Whales. We know what they eat and we can collect their poo. We don't know a lot about what happens inside their bellies.

NEHA SARODE: I’ve worked with, like, human poo and whale poo, and I think this one by far smells better.

Whales go through this beautiful migration which can be a journey as long as 60 days. Not only are they fasting but they are actively swimming, they are actively mating. The microbiome we believe is doing something very important, they are helping them somewhere and we are trying to figure out how and why.

GIRGUIS: All living organisms are essentially electrical machines. That’s the basis of life as we know it.

Now, here is where it gets really cool. Microbes that live in mud at the bottom of the ocean, they can produce electricity.

If I put a graphite rod in sediments and I connect that graphite rod by a wire to another graphite rod that I put up in the oxygen, microbes will actually grow on that graphite that's in the mud and produce electricity.

BRANDON ENALLS: So, right now, I am sweeping across a couple of different electrochemical potentials and measuring the current that’s being generated by the system.

GIRGUIS: There is no extension cord that leads to the bottom of the ocean and sending batteries down there is something we do all the time but it's expensive.
 
We're excited about this because if we can use electricity made by marine microbes in the mud, as small an amount of electricity as it is, we can run sensors and we can use it to do monitoring and to understand our ocean in a way we never could before.

We scientists really are passionate about our science but, you know, we're people like everyone else. And one of the things that's really important to me is to build a culture of inclusivity and synergy.
 
If I succeed in making everybody in my lab better scientists than I am then I will have made a fantastic contribution to science. I think that's the mission of each of us as mentors.