The not-so-Dead Sea

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva located a new series of underwater springs at the Dead Sea. And living in and around them are new forms of life – opening up new questions for microbiologists studying the survival of organisms in harsh environments.

 The not-so-Dead Sea

 

Danny Ionescu, left, and Christian Lott geared up to dive

By Rivka Borochov

Calling the Dead Sea "dead" is a misnomer. The inland salt lake located at the lowest spot on earth, straddling Israel and Jordan, does contain life. It doesn’t hold big fish, or attract seagulls looking for a drink, but a new study suggests that it plays host to a potentially rich number of microorganisms, some never before described by science.

A few days after the American photographer Spencer Tunick enlisted 1,000 volunteers to "strip" for the Dead Sea and be photographed, an Israeli and German research team announced some exciting findings from a summer research expedition: microorganisms that present themselves as photosynthetic microbial mats about 150 meters from shore, 30 meters down in the mineral-rich sea.

After an algae bloom in 1992 following a heavy rain, scientists already knew there could be life in the Dead Sea, but where and how much remained to be seen. Since the Dead Sea is a hostile environment for life forms, few biologists were interested in studying the hard-to-reach lower limits. Only specialized divers can sink to the deepest parts of the Dead Sea; even on the surface, swimmers are cautioned not to put their heads underwater.


Working in extremes

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva located a new series of underwater springs at the Dead Sea. And living in and around them are new forms of life. The discovery, says Danny Ionescu of Max Planck, opens up a lot of new questions for microbiologists studying the survival of organisms in harsh environments.

"I am interested in extreme environments, and in the past I studied thermal springs in Jordan," says Ionescu. "The Dead Sea is extreme because of its high salinity and salt composition. We are always learning how organisms, especially those in microenvironments, deal with the Dead Sea environment. Up until now it has been mostly boring."

 

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