Yücel will examine marine life at depths of 2,500 meters in the Black Sea, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in areas where there is no light, within the scope of the project, for which the European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant provides a budget of 2.4 million euros.
Assoc. Dr. Yücel, with the research he started in January, aims to find similar oceans in the deep seas of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Within the scope of the project, which is planned to be completed in 2028, at least 5 deep sea voyages will be carried out and a laboratory will be established in the METU Marine Sciences Institute, which will be the first in the world for this field.
Providing information about the project, Yücel reminded that in the last 10 years, oceans have been discovered in the ice-covered areas of some of the moons of large planets such as Saturn and Jupiter in the solar system.
“One of the places in the world that simulates the extreme deep sea environment is the Black Sea”
Yücel, “When institutions such as NASA and the European Space Agency explore the oceans, ‘Can there be a chance for life there?’, ‘What are the conditions that support life in an oxygen-free deep sea environment?’ Questions such as these arose. The discoveries of space scientists there benefited us oceanographers. What are the habitats in our own deep seas that represent the oxygen-free deep seas in the solar system, and how we can contribute to the search for life in space by studying them? “We chose places that simulate the deep sea environment. The Black Sea is one of them, there are volcanic vents on the seafloor. We will be working in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with international collaborations.”
“It looks like if we ever find life in space, we’ll find it in this type of ocean”
Yücel stated that it is certain that Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus have an ice crust and an ocean with a depth of 10-20 kilometers under them.
“According to the predictions of the scientists who study them, there are volcanic vents at the bottom of these seas, just like on Earth. At the same time, these seas do not naturally have oxygen, but Saturn and Jupiter emit so much radiation that they separate the hydrogen and oxygen of the water in the ice, and that oxygen is thought to leak into the ocean it is in. We imagine an ocean like today’s Marmara and Black Sea, with an oxygen-rich surface, losing its oxygen as we go deeper, dark, with hydrothermal vents at the bottom. If we ever find life in space, it seems like we will find it in this type of ocean.”
“We will descend into volcanic vents in the Pacific”
Yücel noted that he designed his project to study how life leaves traces in oxygen-free and deep habitats and what the traces of habitability are.
“Rather than identifying species, we are trying to see if there are chemical conditions in which they can evolve. We are not looking for life dependent on sunlight because it is dark. On the contrary, we are looking for food webs that produce energy using chemical reactions that we call ‘chemosynthetic’. The food webs are actually in the dark parts of the Black Sea, volcanic around the chimneys. We are looking for an answer to that question.”
Stating that they will focus more on chemical reactions in their research, Yücel said, “In chemical reaction, many life forms from single-celled to multicellular have very basic metabolic functions such as respiration, chemosynthesis, carbon dioxide fixation… You need metals to do all these. ‘Yes, new oceans have been found, but could there be enzymatic reactions that could support life, in particular?’ “To try to understand similar habitats around the world in order to answer the question,” he said.
Explaining that there are very large eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, that is, these two volcanically active moons occasionally spray out the ocean inside, Yücel said that NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft will detect Jupiter’s moon in 2028. He stated that he will start explorations on Europa, that this vehicle will not go down to the surface, but will pass through the sprays and measure the chemical reactions, gases and particles there, and that they will have summarized these data on the ocean side when the first data comes.
“The working area is at a depth of 2 thousand 500 meters”
Sharing information about the working areas within the scope of the project, Yücel said, “We are planning a joint expedition with the Americans in the spring of 2024 to the Pacific Ocean. The working area there is at a depth of 2,500 meters. We will descend into the volcanic vents. The depth we aim for in the Black Sea starts from 150 meters, up to 2,200 meters. It covers all the depths,” he said.
Emphasizing that the oceans of Jupiter and Saturn moons are much deeper, but their gravity is smaller because they are small, Yücel said, “When you combine the greater depth with the small gravity, a pressure similar to that of the deep oceans in our world arises. Here we establish an analogy. Using these, we can already find our findings there. We will implement it,” he concluded.