Brine pools beneath the ocean kill anything that swims into them

A new discovery of extreme habitats could help us solve three mysteries with one stone — provide new insights into how Earth’s oceans formed, reveal the secrets of extraterrestrial life, and unveil potential cancer-fighting compounds.

This is all thanks to a team of researchers at the University of Miami, who has discovered massive brine deep-sea pools in the Red Sea that quickly kill or paralyze anything that enters them, according to an initial report by LiveScience.

Life does exist on the outskirts of these aquatic death traps; however, any unfortunate animals that delve below the surface do not survive and instead become pickled. However, these rare brine pools may retain clues about millennia-long climatic changes in the region and could even shed light on the origins of life on Earth, a study published in the journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment shows.

Uncovering deep-sea brine pools

In case you didn’t know, brine pools are extremely salty lakes that form on the seafloor. They are among the most extreme environments on our planet due to the fact that they are devoid of oxygen and have lethal levels of saline. They are also known for their extremophile microbes, which may shed light on how life began on Earth and how life could evolve on water-rich worlds.

Deep-sea brine pools are only known to exist in three bodies of water: the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea. It was thought that all deep-sea pools in the Red Sea were located at least 15.5 miles (25 km) offshore; however, this study has changed that, with scientists discovering the first such pools in the Gulf of Aqaba, a northern enclave of the Red Sea. Here, the salty lakes are within 1.25 miles (2 km) from the shore.

The scientists discovered the brine pools 1.1 miles (1.77 km) beneath the surface of the Red Sea during a 2020 expedition onboard the marine exploration organization OceanX’s research vessel OceanXplorer, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle. The new brine pools were named NEOM.

NEOM brine pools. Source: OceanX/Nature

“At this great depth, there is ordinarily not much life on the seabed,” lead author Sam Purkis, a professor and chair of the Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Miami, explained to LiveScience. “However, the brine pools are a rich oasis of life. Thick carpets of microbes support a diverse suite of animals.”

Understanding life on Earth

Because of their proximity to the coast, these pools may have acquired runoff from land, which would mix terrestrial materials into their chemical makeup. As a result, they could potentially serve as an archive of tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes across thousands of years.

Purkis noted that the core samples taken from the newly discovered brine pools provide “an unbroken record of past rainfall in the region, stretching back more than 1,000 years, plus records of earthquakes and tsunami.” And, according to the team’s findings, large floods from heavy rain “occur about once every 25 years, and tsunamis [take place] about once every 100 years”, which could shift the perspective on the massive infrastructure projects that are currently in construction on the coastline of the region.

The implications of the discovery do not stop there, as the pool could also yield microbial discoveries that could aid in the development of novel medicines and treatments. For example, deep-sea microorganisms dwelling in brine pools have previously yielded molecules with antibacterial and anticancer effects. And, on a cosmic scale, the brine pools could also help us reveal the secrets of extraterrestrial life.

“Our current understanding is that life originated on Earth in the deep sea, almost certainly in anoxic — without oxygen — conditions,” Purkis explained. “Deep-sea brine pools are a great analog for the early Earth and, despite being devoid of oxygen and hypersaline, are teeming with a rich community of so-called ‘extremophile’ microbes. Studying this community hence allows a glimpse into the sort of conditions where life first appeared on our planet, and might guide the search for life on other ‘water worlds’ in our solar system and beyond.”

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