National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce

Enhancing the Blue Economy through Characterization of Hydrothermal Vent and Methane Seep Communities

"Anemone" vent in the ASHES vent field at Axial, 2011

Enhancing the Blue Economy through Characterization of Hydrothermal Vent and Methane Seep Communities

Hydrothermal vents and hydrocarbon seeps along U.S. continental margins are home to unique chemosynthetic biological communities and are slated to become a key component of the blue economy through mineral (e.g., silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, zinc), fuel (natural gas), and pharmaceutical resources. However, ecological risks to vent and methane seep communities are escalating due to increased mining, oil and gas drilling, and bottom trawl fishing. The PMEL Ocean Molecular Ecology group leverages advances in molecular techniques to characterize these unique biological communities, whose biodiversity and connectivity are poorly understood.

This research is important to NOAA due to the high economic potential of vents and seeps, meeting the NOAA Research (OAR) and NOAA Ocean Exploration Program (OE) missions to explore, conserve, and manage our ocean's natural resources. The work specifically addresses critical knowledge gaps to discover, identify, and describe the unique biological assemblages of vents and seeps and discern their inter-connected relationships, including those with biopharmaceutical, biotechnical, and fishery potential, acquiring baseline ocean environmental information to help inform decision-making about exploitation of their resources. As many vent and seep habitats occur at tremendous depths, the biological communities remain underexplored and understudied. To date, several hundred hydrothermal vent fields and seeps have been discovered, with hundreds more predicted, including abundant seeps off the Cascadia Margin, Axial Seamount, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Critically, we have limited knowledge about how to ensure that our vent and seep resources are used sustainably as increased competition in marine spatial planning grows.

The specific research aims of the PMEL Ocean Molecular Ecology are to develop and apply cutting-edge biomolecular tools to (1) identify and quantify the living communities of fishes, invertebrates, and microbes in relation to vent and seep physical and chemical oceanic parameters, and (2) analyze population connectivity across vents and seeps as well as with surrounding marine ecosystems. We address this by collecting samples using CTD Niskin bottles and/or ROVs and performing targeted eDNA metabarcoding assays to identify biological communities. Specifically, our work seeks to understand the function and composition of vent microbial assemblages as well as the potential for leveraging ‘omics approaches for hydrothermal vent detection and tracking. This collective approach aims to provide much greater efficiency in both time and cost, as well as information, compared to traditional video surveys and morphological analysis.

We are presently collaborating with the PMEL Earth-Ocean Interactions (EOI) Program on several research expeditions in the Pacific, and as a result have participated in the 2021 West Ocean Acidification cruise, the 2021 E/V Nautilus Cascadia Margin Seep Exploration cruise, the 2020 & 2022 Axial Seamount cruises, and the 2023 In Search of Hydrothermal Lost Cities Expedition on the Schmidt Ocean Institute vessel, R/V Falkor (too). 
Sean McAllister filtering eDNA samples directly from a CTD Niskin Array
Sean McAllister filtering eDNA samples directly off a CTD Niskin array on the deck of the R/V Falkor (too). Photo credit: Dave Caress