A new discovery of extreme habitats could help us solve three one-stone mysteries – providing new insights into the formation of Earth’s oceans, revealing the secrets of extraterrestrial life and unveiling potential cancer-fighting compounds.
It’s all thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Miami, who discovered huge deep-sea brine pools in the Red Sea that quickly kill or cripple anything that enters them, according to an initial report by Live Science.
Life exists on the periphery of these aquatic death traps; however, not all unfortunate animals that dive below the surface survive and are instead pickled. However, these rare brine pools could hold clues to millennial climate changes in the region and may even shed light on the origins of life on Earth, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment shows.
Discover the brine basins on the high seas
In case you didn’t know, brine pools are extremely salty lakes that form on the sea 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 solution. They are also known for their extremophile microbes, which may shed light on how life began on Earth and how life may have evolved on water-rich worlds.
Deep-sea brine pools are only known from three bodies of water: the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea. All deep pools in the Red Sea were thought to be located at least 15.5 miles (25 km) offshore; however, this study changed that, with scientists discovering the first such basins in the Gulf of Aqaba, a northern Red Sea enclave. Here, the salt lakes are less than 2 km from the shore.
Scientists discovered the brine pools 1.77 km below the surface of the Red Sea during a 2020 expedition aboard marine exploration organization OceanX’s research vessel OceanXplorer, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle. The new brine tanks have been named NEOM.
“At this great depth, there’s usually not a lot of 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. “However, brine pools are a rich oasis of life. Thick carpets of microbes support a diverse retinue of animals.”
Understanding life on Earth
Due to their proximity to the coast, these basins may have acquired runoff from the land, which would mix terrestrial materials into their chemical composition. As a result, they could potentially serve as records of tsunamis, floods and earthquakes over thousands of years.
Purkis noted that cores taken from the recently discovered brine pools provide “an unbroken record of past rainfall in the region, dating back over 1,000 years, as well as earthquake and tsunami records.” And, according to the team’s findings, major floods from heavy rains “occur about once every 25 years, and tsunamis [take place] about once every 100 years”, which could change the perspective on the massive infrastructure projects that are currently being built on the region’s coastline.
The implications of the discovery don’t end there, as the pool could also yield microbial findings that could aid in the development of new drugs and treatments. For example, deep-sea microorganisms living in brine pools have already produced molecules with antibacterial and anticancer effects. And, on a cosmic scale, brine pools could also help us unlock the secrets of extraterrestrial life.
“Our current understanding is that life originated on Earth in the deep sea, almost certainly under anoxic – oxygen-free – conditions,” Purkis explained. “Deep-sea brine pools are an excellent analogue of early Earth and, although oxygen-deprived and hypersaline, are teeming with a rich community of so-called ‘extremophile’ microbes. Studying this community allows therefore to gain insight into the kind of conditions where life first appeared on our planet, and could guide the search for life on other “aquatic worlds” in our solar system and beyond.”