The Whitman College Magazine Online

Deep Sea Mystery:

Whitman professor receives more questions than answers

Can you name these creatures?

When biology professor Paul Yancey placed mug shots of several mysterious deep sea creatures on his Web page in 1997, he had hopes that someone out there in cyberspace would help him identify and classify the specimens he and his students had caught while trawling the ocean floor near Newport, Oregon, on the research vessel Wecoma.

What the Whitman College professor got was a deluge of questions especially after Yahoo discovered the page from Web-surfing middle schoolers asking for help with biology reports due "tomorrow" to Hollywood scriptwriters wanting expert opinion on The Perfect Storm to panicked movie goers wanting information on the deep sea monsters that wreaked havoc in Deep Rising.

In this photo from his Web page, Paul Yancey displays a deep-sea specimen found off the Oregon coast.
"This little project just blew up, and I wound up giving out lots more information than I was getting." Although it was fun, said Yancey, responding became a time-consuming project. As an educator, he wanted to answer all the questions personally, but out of self defense he eventually added information to the Web page in an attempt to answer questions before they were asked. The site ( now features sections titled Life In the Deep, Deep Sea Animals, Research at Sea, High Pressure How Life Copes, and The Oceans in Trouble, as well as other pages. It has become an on-line textbook on marine biology that is used by middle school, high school, and college instructors. The site's address has been published in textbooks and magazines, and Yahoo has it hot-linked to the world. The good news is that all but two of the mysterious species have been tentatively identified; Yancey might get to name a "new" starfish he dredged up from the deep; and a scientist at the Smithsonian is interested in studying the swimming sea cucumber the team found.

With his Web-page-related emails now down to only about three or four a week, Yancey has more time to pursue the research that took him and his students out to sea in the first place the search to find out how deep-sea animals withstand the immense water pressure in the ocean depths. Yancey's research, reported in The Journal of Experimental Biology, New Scientist, and elsewhere, shows that deep-sea animals contain more of the compound trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) than animals living in shallow water. TMAO helps to stabilize the animals' proteins so they keep their shape under the crushing pressure of up to thousands of meters of water.

Although the full significance of the discovery of TMAO is not yet known, scientists at the University of California at San Francisco have used TMAO to save proteins damaged by cystic fibrosis.

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