These Robots Roam Toxic Seafloors to Bring Back New, Bizarre Species

Shannon Johnson uses robots to explore deep-sea hydrothermal vents, where science-fiction-worthy animals live in hot, acidic water and munch on bacteria that can survive in space.

Meet Shannon Johnson, a senior research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) who’s as effervescent as her favorite research topic: hydrothermal vents. Shannon’s recent project involved decoding the population genetics of the unique creatures that thrive in these acidic underwater hotspots to determine how these “oases of the deep” are connected.

"Hydrothermal vents are kind of like going to another planet,” she explains. “They're usually covered with these amazing, huge, beautiful animals that are just nothing like you've ever seen before." Shannon notes that most of the inspiration for the appearance of aliens in Hollywood science fiction movies comes from places like deep sea vents, which are home to everything from giant bone-eating worms to “rainbow glitter” jellyfish.

It is nearly impossible to locate and investigate hydrothermal vents because they occur too deep for traditional exploration techniques and emit a soup of hydrogen sulfide and other toxic chemicals. Instead, Shannon and her colleagues first send an autonomous underwater vehicle, called an AUV, to map the seafloor at high resolution. Once the team discovers a new vent site with an AUV, they plan an expedition using a remotely-operated underwater vehicle, or ROV. These complex robots are equipped with sensors and sampling devices to bring back data and specimens from the deep. Shannon then sequences the DNA of the biological samples to learn more about how the life in each unique ecosystem survives in such harsh conditions.

Images retrieved by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft from one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, show that hydrothermal vents may not be unique to our home planet. Recent experiments on Earth have shown that the bacteria from deep-sea vents could very well survive in conditions like those we’d expect on Enceladus.

Shannon notes that there is much more to be explored in this field, on our own planet and elsewhere. “We're very, very privileged to be able to visit these environments,” she says. “We've only scratched the surface of exploring these vents.”