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Arp journeys into the abyss

For marine biologist Alissa Arp, Southern Oregon University's new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, journeying to the bottom of the ocean and encountering new species was the trip of a lifetime, on par with traveling in outer space.

"People always ask if it was scary. No, it was thrilling," says Arp, reflecting on her eight trips to the Pacific floor. "It was life-altering — getting down to the bottom of the ocean where no one had been. It was like going into space, very dramatic."

Arp discovered colonies of blind tube worms living on thermal vents under immense pressure in total darkness, able to survive by transporting oxygen and normally toxic hydrogen sulfide to big colonies of their own intestinal bacteria, which in turn manufactured sugars the worms needed to live.

As a scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Arp in 1979 and 1980 retrieved worms from the deep and dissected them in labs aboard an accompanying ship, expanding human understanding of the extremes under which life can thrive.

"Until then," says Arp, "science assumed the ocean bottom was a vast wasteland, where creatures depended on dead and dying stuff filtering down, and we thought biological life needed photosynthesis, something absent from the ocean floor.

"What we found were not just live animals, but robust animals, with a high rate of metabolism "¦ it became apparent they were very unusual animals, making a living on the bottom of the ocean with no mouth, eyes or digestive system, just a big sac of bacteria doing that for them."

Recalling her trips into the deep, Arp said sunlight slowly disappears within a few hundred meters of the surface.

"It's very beautiful, the light fading," she said. Farther down, bioluminescent sea creatures, disturbed by the submersible, "fire off" sparkles of light. On the sea floor, there's complete darkness and intense cold, "and it's very cramped" in the submersible, with water vapor (from breathing) dripping off the ceiling and the inevitable jokes about springing a leak.

Arp is the daughter of noted astronomer Halton Arp, author in 1966 of the "Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies."

"Science was all we talked about and I didn't like it," Alissa Arp said of her childhood, "but then I got in college and fell in love with marine biology."

Arp also had fallen in love with Ashland during high school, when her family made regular trips to see plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She said she's glad to finally make it her home.

Arp's discoveries briefly made her a media celebrity, complete with a session on the "Today" show, and newspaper and magazine interviews.

She said perhaps the most valuable part of the adventure was a deepened understanding of the versatility and adaptability of life on Earth.

"We had this body of knowledge around the origins of life, the idea of the perfect setting with bright light and plenty of oxygen to sustain life," she said, "but we need to think much more broadly than that, when we see life not just adapt, but flourish in very hot and cold, very toxic chemicals."

Looking at the planet's biosphere in a time of accelerated climate change, Arp said such adaptation takes time and "doesn't happen in a generation. If climate change happens rapidly, there are going to be mass die-offs and extinctions."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Marine biologist Alissa Arp is Southern Oregon University’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1979-80, Arp made an astounding discovery: tube worms that could live on the bottom of the ocean without photosynthesis, expanding human understanding of the extremes under which life can thrive. - Dennis Dunleavy