Day 6: A tiny, pristine, world in a bubble

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July 4, 2011; 22:05 PDT
July 5, 2011; 05:06 UTC

47 45.661260 N,
127 45.674700 W

Today we recovered our first samples. Everyone on this cruise has different experiments to carry out, however they all have in common a remarkable scientific deployment that all of them have found uses for. As recognition of the importance of the subsurface environment grew, so did the recognition of the difficulty that such investigations entailed. Any attempts to observe an environment covered by miles of rocks required drilling into it, which ruined any useful samples. The solution that emerged was to drill, destroying the usefulness, but then setup instruments to perform the investigations and facilitate the return of the natural system. Then, you wait. After a few years, the impact of the the drilling has faded, and you have a system representative of undisturbed rock, but with a window. This is the basic premise behind a corked borehole. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of a program with MANY impressive aspects is that these corked boreholes are highly modular. Once drilled, casing is inserted to prevent the hole from falling in on itself, and a string is lowered into it with packers that swell in contact with water, isolating different depths from one another. Basic instruments for recording pressure and temperature, along with hoses, connect each depth to ports at the wellhead. On this ship are chemists, geologists, biologists, and hydrologists, each with different questions, and each with their own large, complicated, custom-made devices designed to plug into the modular ports that pipe water from within the holes.
Ours are called FLOCS. This stands for FLow-Through Osmo Colonization Systems. The name is a reference to “floc”, which is a technical term for the gunk bacteria produce around themselves as they grow in large colonies. Our FLOCS are chambers containing crushed, sterilized rocks. One end is plugged into the ports on the wellheads and the other are attached to osmotically driven pumps, which are a feat in their own right. If the conditions are right, then the water flowing through them should carry bacteria that grow on the crushed rocks just like they do on natural rocks deep within the Earth, all around the world. I’ve spent several days assembling these FLOCS. We have bags of small plastic cassettes the size of film cannisters, which get filled with either crushed rocks or plastic slides with smooth rock chips. The bacteria grow better on the crushed rocks, but the smooth chips are easier to look at under microscopes. They all go into their cassettes, which go into larger chambers themselves, which are strung together in chains and placed into a cannisters several feet long and screwed onto the long, narrow plates which are the interchangable interface with the wellheads. There are many strange creations on each table in the ship’s main laboratory, but this plate is the common platform of many of them.
I wouldn’t say that building up FLOCS over the last few days was boring, but it wasn’t really exciting work, either. What IS exciting is seeing the finished product from inside the Jason control room. In the morning, that heavy mass of plastic and steel was in your hands. Suddenly, its in another world. Today we recovered samples just like those I’ve been assembling which were deployed a year ago. This is when I found what was more exciting than that: seeing it come back.
They show signs of their travels. They’re slimy, and they smells bad. Not terrible, but bad. We carried the three of them into the wet lab, where we do the messy work, and began to deconstruct them. Remove them from their housing. Discard the support padding. Leave the parts that belong to our collaborators and take the heart of the FLOCS, the rock cartridges, into the main lab for processing. It may sound odd, but they reminded me of prosthetics. Not any particular body part, just some unusual organ. This is probably because they share some qualities with prosthetics. One of the hardest parts about building fake body parts is often getting them not to do things that the original doesn’t do. There is no worry that in a living heart blood could clot on the inside of it, building up a film that could then peel off and clog an artery. A living hand doesn’t have a point where it connects to the body, where it must be fastened on. Its seamless. In the same way, the FLOCS are supposed to be in every conceivable way like the rocks a mile below them. They should have all the things those rocks have – their temperature, their pressure, their shape – and none of the things that they don’t have. They can’t include any chemicals that aren’t their normally, which could assist or inhibit growth. This is hard to do. It sounds obvious, but THINGS ARE MADE OF THINGS. You’d like to install a stint into an artery and tell the blood cells, “Just pretend that it isn’t there”, but you can’t. Plastics leach into water, especially when heated. Its minor: It doesn’t affect us to drink out of a plastic cup, probably because the process is so slow. But these FLOCS had been flowing with ancient water — water that quite possibly had not been in contact with the open ocean for centuries — for a year. A lot of care went into a design that asked as little imagination as possible from the microbes, which as far as we can tell have none. On the outside, mud and rocks. On the inside, mud and rocks. Between them, expensive polymers, precise filters, tiny gaskets, and all those plastic nuts and bolts, bringing us a bit of another world it a pristine bottle all while pretending not to be there. I had fun disassembling them, moving their contents into labeled storage vials and adding preservatives, which now told the contents to stop behaving as they would in their ordinary lives and instead to never change again. Hold that pose. Forever.
I look forward to studying them. I have time now. Maybe I’ll do it next month, or maybe long after the next forth of July.

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