What James Cameron found during his record-breaking solo sub dive

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Jan 14, 2013, 2:52 PM EST

When he's not busy investing in asteroid mining schemes or teasing us with movies he's taking forever to make, James Cameron likes to drive submarines. Last March he took his solo sub to record-setting depths as part of a scientific expedition to the ocean's deepest trenches, but did he find anything interesting?

Last March, in his one-man submarine the Deepsea Challenger, Cameron descended to the lowest point of the ocean in the Mariana Trench, becoming the first human since 1960 to hit that depth of nearly 36,000 feet. Before that, in trials for the sub, he became the first human to ever see the bottom of the New Britain Trench at a depth of approximately 26,900 feet. Even unmanned vehicles had never been there.

"It was basically terra incognita from a science perspective," Cameron said.

But apart from the cool submarine driving part, Cameron was also traveling with a team of scientists hoping to learn from his explorations of the deepest parts of our world. So did the team find anything interesting?

It turns out they did, but not in the bare environs of the Mariana Trench. In the end, the New Britain Trench had the most interesting finds. While exploring the trench both with Cameron's sub and with remote vehicles, the team found a thriving community of organisms feeding off nutrients that drifted into the trench from islands in the area.

"There was a lot of nutrient input," said Douglas Bartlett, a microbiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. "It was incredible to see logs at 8.2 kilometres."

But what's more exciting than that is the vibrant microbial life found in the trench, and how it might be getting nutrients.

"What was very exciting about the Serena Deep dive was we could see outcrops and bizarre microbial mats covering the rocks," said Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

According to the researchers who were part of Cameron's team, the microbial mats were fed through a process known as "serpentinization," a reaction between sea water and minerals in the rocks that produces hydrogen and methane that could feed the microbes.

It's been speculated that this serpentinization process may be responsible for producing the earliest forms of life on Earth, and could even produce life in similar ways on other planets. So if we keep studying life in these trenches, it could get us closer to understanding how life begins anywhere in the universe.

"Serpentinization is seen to be a possible culprit in that step between geochemisty and biochemistry," Hand said.

As for Cameron, he's done with submarines for the time being, though he does hope to plan future missions and share his technology with the scientific community. The ocean might be his primary focus again someday, but for now he's apparently interested in Mars. NASA just announced they're planning a new Mars rover for a 2020 mission, and Cameron (who designed a zoom camera for the Curiosity rover that wasn't used in the end) is already working to get some of his camera components on board the mission. So in case you weren't already convinced, that should prove to you that he's one of the geekiest filmmakers on the planet.

(Via Nature)

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