According to exobiologists at NASA, these mysterious prawns and its symbiotic bacterium may hold clues “about what life could be like on other planetary bodies”. It’s life that may be similar — at the basic level — to what could be lurking in the oceans of Europa, deep under the icy crust of the Jupiter moon.
Max Coleman, senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, says that they are focusing on “this mysterious ecosystem in the Caribbean [the Von Damm Spire, located 2.3km underwater] to get clues about what life could be like on other planetary bodies, such as Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which has a subsurface ocean.”
For two-thirds of the Earth’s history, life has existed only as microbial life. On Europa, the best chance for life would be microbial. […] The overall objective of our research is to see how much life or biomass can be supported by the chemical energy of the hot submarine springs. […] It’s a remarkable symbiotic system.
Their research — based on specimens collected in these Caribbean thermal vents, first discovered in 2009 and revisited in 2012 — show how these beings survive in such extreme conditions:
[The] hydrogen sulfide [produced by the vents] is toxic to organisms in high concentrations, but the bacteria feeding the shrimp need a certain amount of this chemical to survive. Nature has worked out a solution: The shrimp position themselves on the very border between normal, oxygenated ocean water and sulfide-rich water so that they and the bacteria can coexist in harmony.
The temperatures at the vents can climb up to a scorching 400°C, but waters just an inch away are cool enough to support the shrimp. The shrimp are blind, but have thermal receptors in the backs of their heads.
According to Emma Versteegh — a post-doctoral fellow at JPL — “whether an animal like this could exist on Europa heavily depends on the actual amount of energy that’s released there, through hydrothermal vents.”
That submarine mission to Europa — the one that Adam Steltzner and his colleagues at JPL are dreaming about — is not coming soon enough.