Digging deep


ECU biology professor Dr. Matt Schrenk will lead a group of scientists in research on habitats well below the Earth's surface. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)



Biology professor to oversee $1.5 million grant

By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services

An East Carolina University professor will oversee a $1.5 million grant funding research into what lies underneath the Earth’s oceans and continents.

The grant was awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Deep Carbon Observatory. Dr. Matt Schrenk, an assistant professor of biology at ECU, will serve as the principal investigator, teaming with nine other primary scientists and researchers working around the world.

The main goal of the research is to better understand what goes on in subsurface environments and how the microbes that live there survive. No one knows how they eat or grow, Schrenk said, or how they react to certain elements or why they are often brightly colored.

Studies of the habitats are limited because areas existing kilometers below the Earth’s surface — and sometimes covered with water — are hard to reach. However, the total biomass living there is expected to equal the amount we see on the surface.

“Most…think all there is to life is here on the surface,” Schrenk remarked. “We just need more data on these systems.”

Three types of field sites are incorporated in the grant research: Deep fractures in continental rocks, groundwater wells in rocks pushed up over time from the ocean crust, and hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

Research applications could be wide ranging, Schrenk said. Deep earth rocks react with water to produce large amounts of hydrogen and methane gas, so they are seen as a potential sources of alternative energy.

The way the sites absorb and react to carbon could be relevant to climate change studies, and understanding how the earth has and might react to increasing levels of carbon. The balance between the carbon in the earth and carbon in the atmosphere is important in regulating the Earth’s climate, Schrenk said.

It could also inform the ways life might develop on other planets, Schrenk said, because certain reactions between water and rocks are believed to have contributed to the origins of life on Earth.

“This is one of the biggest collaborative grants that I have seen come through for Arts and Sciences, particularly from a nonprofit,” said Melody Bentz, grants officer in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Office of Research.

Schrenk said the work brings various disciplines together, including biology, chemistry and geology. He expects his two-year stint leading the research will only lay the groundwork for scientists to come.

Learn more about the goals of the Deep Carbon Observatory’s Deep Life program at https://dco.gl.ciw.edu/science/deep-life.

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