Earlier this month, two Bowdoin students had a unique opportunity to complete fieldwork in the Gulf of Mexico with Professor of Biology and Doherty Marine Biology Postdoctoral Scholar Dan Thornhill. Thornhill also brought Courtney Bell '10 and Will Hatleberg '11 with him to conduct research. Leaving the week before fall break, the group spent a night in Auburn, Ala. before continuing to Mississippi with researchers from Auburn University to conduct deep-sea data collection.

During the trip, the group researched deep-sea worm phylogenetics. The worms are organisms that live off of fossil fuels. These unique systems are hard to find, and significant research has not been done on them in the past.

Hatleberg is currently conducting an independent study research project on the worms. The trip was the culmination of more than a year of lab research with Thornhill.

The large research group stayed on a boat for the entire week, with seven trips down to collect data. The deep-sea exploration occurred in a submersible—an experience that few undergraduates or scientists get. This was also Thornhill's first deep-sea exploration trip.

Hatleberg said that the trip underwater was, "most likely the most memorable experience I will have during my time at Bowdoin."

The trip down was a four-hour adventure that reached 1,400 feet below sea level. The submersible "was equipped with two robotic arms for collecting our samples and a large Plexiglas 'biobox' for containing the specimens on our ascent to the surface," Hatleberg said.

This compact and incredible machine exposed "abysmal" muddy plains stretching on infinitely, with the occasional "patch of abundant life."

Up above, teams worked to process the worm samples. One group sorted for DNA, while the other looked at genes and pathways.

The research is focused on finding out how the interaction between the worms and fossil fuels occurs. The worms have no gut; they digest and produce energy using bacteria.

The worms were preserved and brought back to Bowdoin for further examination. While the data-collection process went smoothly, the analysis will take much longer. The researchers collected such a large amount of data that the already complex process of analysis will be increased. Thornhill thinks the first processed data they can use will be available at the beginning of 2010.

Bell, on the other hand, just started researching the worms this semester. Both Hatleberg and Bell are in an independent study lab with Thornhill.

The research trip was made possible by a National Science Foundation grant for which the biology department spent two and a half years applying. Thornhill will continue researching these unique symbiotic systems in Norway over the summer.