WALLA WALLA, Wash.— The researcher and the teacher in Paul Yancey merged this fall when the Whitman biology professor had the opportunity to repeat his research adventures at sea while also teaching a class at Whitman College.

Last summer Yancey spent 20 days at sea on the research vessel Atlantis with student Ray Andrell ’07. Yancey was offered a dive aboard the ALVIN, the manned submersible best known for exploring the Titanic remains, to add to his ongoing research. Yancey, Andrell and colleague Ray Lee of Washington State University were on an expedition collecting deep sea animals from extreme habitats for physiological studies. (For more information on Yancey’s extensive research into deep sea animals and his current collection see his Web page at http://people.whitman.edu/~yancey

Chimney worms
Chimney worms

This summer Yancey and Andrell (now a grad student at Washington State University) are on another voyage with Lee to the hydrothermal vents off the Washington coast, but the Atlantis schedule for summer/fall 2007 has taken them out to sea during the first weeks of class at Whitman. Never one to miss a teachable moment, Yancey (who will be giving make-up lectures when he returns) has been emailing assignments to his physiology class. In one assignment Yancey asked students to make hypotheses (based on information and photos he emailed from Atlantis) on “adaptations in the physiology/biochemistry of the worms” pictured. The questions he posed included:

  1. Hydrogen sulfide is toxic to animal cells (it poisons iron-containing proteins such as cytochromes in the mitochondria). Yet these animals must take it up in order to "feed" their internal symbionts. How do the animals survive?
  2. The pressure here is 220 times higher than at the surface. High pressure distorts membranes and proteins. How do the animals survive?
  3. The temperature here fluctuates wildly as the vent waters swirl violently. Nearby seawater is only about 2C, while the hottest vent waters can be 400C! Although no known life can live at those high temperatures, some archaea here live up to 120C and some of the worms may live above 50C. Moreover, the worms can be hit by cold water one minute and hot water the next. Compare this to a human: If she/he becomes only a few degrees hypothermic, or has a fever only a few degrees above normal, he/she will suffer and perhaps perish. How do the vent animals cope with both high temperatures and with wildly variable temperatures?

Grades are still out, but the Atlantis is due back in port Thursday, Sept. 6, and Yancey plans to meet with his class Friday, Sept. 7, at 10 a.m.

Pictured: Chimneyworms (called “alvinellid” worms) are shown inside one of the chimney-tower sections brought back. The formation has been cracked open. If you look carefully, you may notice fools gold (iron pyrite, an iron sulfide mineral) in the chimney rock. These worms are speculated to be the most heat-tolerant animals on earth, living most up to 50-55C, but some say even higher. Their adaptations are part of what Ray Lee’s group is testing. These animals are now living in pressure/temperature regulated chambers on the ship.

Contact: Lenel Parish, Sr. News Service Officer, Whitman College News Service
Email: parishlj@whitman.edu