From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published August 15, 2011 08:07 AM

Deep Sea Hydrogen Cells

Deep-sea mussels use integrated biological based bacterial fuel cells to harness energy from hydrogen spewing out of hydrothermal vents, according to new research indicating that the use of this alternative fuel may be widespread in the communities at these vents. This is the first identified deep-sea organism to use hydrogen as a fuel.


A hydrothermal vent is a fissure in a planet's surface from which geothermally heated water issues. Hydrothermal vents are commonly found near volcanically active places, areas where tectonic plates are moving apart, ocean basins, and hotspots. Hydrothermal vents exist because the earth is both geologically active and has large amounts of water on its surface and within its crust. Common land types include hot springs, fumaroles and geysers. Under the sea, hydrothermal vents may form features called black smokers. Relative to the majority of the deep sea, the areas around submarine hydrothermal vents are biologically more productive, often hosting complex communities fueled by the chemicals dissolved in the vent fluids.

Hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean typically form along the Mid-ocean ridges, such as the East Pacific Rise and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. These are locations where two tectonic plates are diverging and new crust is being formed.

The ecosystem so formed is reliant upon the continued existence of the hydrothermal vent field as the primary source of energy, which differs from most surface life on Earth which is based on solar energy. However, although it is often said that these communities exist independently of the sun, some of the organisms are actually dependent upon oxygen produced by photosynthetic organisms. Others are anaerobic as was the earliest life.

This ecosystem can sometimes use energy derived indirectly from the sun (dead biological items that fall to the seas bottom), the faint light generated from other organisms at the bottom of the sea near the vent, sulfur dioxide, methane and now hydrogen as an option.

While scientists already knew that organisms were able to convert hydrogen sulfide and methane into energy through a process known as chemosynthesis, a research team from the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology and the University of Bremen found that mussels living in a vent field on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge also consume hydrogen. After collecting specimens from teeming mussel beds located deep beneath the ocean’s surface, the scientists were able to identify the key enzyme used by the mussels in hydrogen oxidation.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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