Orphan Lab in the News

Lessons from Aliso Canyon

December 16, 2016

As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Even when that cloud is 109,000 metric tons of methane. The Aliso Canyon leak, which began on October 23, 2015 at a SoCalGas natural gas storage facility and took nearly four months to plug, was one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history, triggering the evacuation of more than 6,800 nearby households. more

Newly discovered soil microbes may have helped eat methane after Porter Ranch natural gas leak

December 16, 2016

The Aliso Canyon gas leak that forced thousands of people to leave their homes in Porter Ranch also had a dramatic impact on the area’s microscopic residents, new research shows. In the area around the breach, Caltech scientists found a massive increase in previously unknown microbes that inhabit the soil and appear to consume ethane and possibly methane. The discovery, described this week at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, is prompting researchers to reconsider the nature of these gas-eating critters. It could also aid efforts to use microbes to clean up future environmental disasters. more

Reactions from 2 MacArthur ‘Geniuses’

September 22, 2016

The MacArthur Foundation announced its 2016 ‘Genius’ grant recipients Thursday. Half of the 23 honorees come from California. Press Play spoke with two of them: Josh Kun, a writer and historian who studies the intersections of music and culture, particularly in Los Angeles, and Victoria Orphan, who researches micro-organisms that eat methane in the deep sea. more

Geobiologist Victoria Orphan | 2016 MacArthur Fellow

September 21, 2016

Victoria Orphan is a geobiologist whose research sheds new light on microbial communities in extreme environments and their impact on the cycling of nutrients and energy through the oceans.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a $625,000, no-strings-attached grant for individuals who have shown exceptional creativity in their work and the promise to do more. more

MacArthur winner Victoria Orphan showed how deep-sea microbes keep greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere

September 21, 2016

Victoria Orphan was on a boat off the Southern California coast in 1993 when she asked a graduate student sampling seawater about his research. He stained a sample with fluorescent dye and put it under a microscope. Orphan, then a UC Santa Barbara undergraduate, stared at the dense constellations of glowing microbes. “It was like looking at the Milky Way,” she said. “It was just an incredible amount of microscopic life. I’ve never looked at a glass of seawater the same way since.” That was the beginning of a path that put Orphan on the list of 2016 MacArthur fellows. more

Deep-sea drilling expedition to look for life's limits in scalding environments

September 7, 2016

Somewhere in the sediments and rocks beneath the ocean floor, it gets too hot for living things. But how far down? Even after drilling kilometers into the ocean floor, scientists have found that microbes persist. “We keep digging and digging and digging deeper and have not hit the bottom of the biosphere,” says Jan Amend, a geochemist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A new ocean drilling expedition will try to settle the question by drilling into crust where high temperatures are found unusually close to the sea floor, bringing life’s thermal limit within reach. more

In the Light of Evolution

Snorkeling with endemic Galápagos sea lions. The students snorkeled several times a day while on the trip. September, 2016

"Remember—'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,'" says Rob Phillips to a group of Caltech undergraduates, as they step out of a small plane onto the Galápagos Islands. Phillips, the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology, is quoting biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, whose 1972 essay "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" inspired Phillips and Victoria Orphan, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology, to create an evolution course at Caltech. The biannual class, founded in 2014, culminates in a nine-day field trip to the Galápagos... more

See and sort: Developing novel techniques to visualize uncultured microbial cell activity

A cell consortia of archaea and bacteria Image: WHOI June 28, 2016

Many uncultured microbes play unknown roles in regulating Earth's biogeochemical processes; everything from regulating plant health to driving nutrient cycles in both terrestrial and marine environments, processes that can impact global climate. While researchers are harnessing multiple approaches to identify these microbes, referred to as "microbial dark matter," and determine what they're doing, most techniques don't allow them to do both at once. more

The Search for Superorganisms

Visualization of different microbial consortia Image: WHOI April 20, 2016

In 2009, Victoria Orphan crammed into the submarine Alvin with a pilot and another marine scientist to see an ecosystem as strange and separate as another planet. more

Cal State Channel Islands Scientist Studies Microbes Which May Consume Methane

A cell consortia of archaea and bacteria Image: WHOI March 1, 2016

It took crews more than three months to seal the gas leak in the San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch which forced thousands of people from their homes. Aside from plugging the leak, there wasn’t much which could be done to deal with the gas spewing into the atmosphere. A Ventura County researcher says nature may give us a new tool in dealing with problems like this, in the form of methane munching microbes. That researcher is Cal State Channel Islands biologist Dr. Patricia Tavormina, who's research today has her walking on a narrow trail on a section of Aliso Canyon. more

Microorganisms in the sea organize their power supply via nanowire power cables

archaea bacteria nanowires Credit: MPI f. Marine Microbiology October 21, 2015

Electrical energy from the socket - this convenient type of power supply is apparently used by some microorganisms. Cells can meet their energy needs in the form of electricity through nanowire connections. more

How Methane-Eating Microbes Respond to Rapid Environmental Change

Hydrate Ridge, offshore Oregon USA, is the frequently studied marine methane seep at which the experiments took place. Visible in the image are orange bacterial mats and the broken, rocky terrain characteristic to these habitats. Various deployed transplantation and colonization experiments can be seen by their associated tags — including a marker for the overall site, ‘HR 3’. The arm of the submersible is visible on the left of the image, and sampling equipment is visible in the lower right. December 23, 2015

Imagine a landscape on the seafloor, half a mile below sea level, where the sweep of normal marine sediment – calm, flat, expansive – is interrupted by an ecosystem of astonishing diversity. more

Electron transport between species discovered in deep-sea research

Orange fish swim above a healthy coral reef Image: WHOI September 19, 2015

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have discovered two microbial species capable of sharing the energy needed to consume methane through electron transfer without direct contact. Researchers say it is the first time interspecies electron transport, or the external passing of electrons from one type of cell to another, has been discovered among microorganisms in a natural setting. more

Flowing electrons help ocean microbes gulp methane

The samples of bacteria and archaea from the ocean floor were collected from the methane seeps at Hydrate Ridge, just 62 miles off the coast of Oregon. Using a three-person submersible called Alvin, the researchers navigated to sites for sampling of background sediment as well as sediment from the bubbling methane seeps. Video shows the vehicle's robotic arm collecting a push core of methane seep sediment overlaid with an orange microbial mat. September 18, 2015

This is the first time that direct interspecies electron transport--the movement of electrons from a cell, through the external environment, to another cell type--has been documented in microorganisms in nature. more

Dr Patricia Tavormina named winner of first IDT ISO 14001 Sustainability Award

active seep September 9, 2015

Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT), the world leader in custom oligonucleotide synthesis, awarded the inaugural IDT ISO 14001 Sustainability Award to Dr Patricia Tavormina of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. Dr Tavormina's research focuses on naturally occurring methane-oxidizing bacteria, (MOB), and the role they play in limiting greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. more

'Shadow biosphere' might be hiding strange life right under our noses

Yellowstone hot spring Steve Jurvetson Flickr February 14, 2015

If we came across alien life, would we even know it was alive? That was a central question posed at a session here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science). All known life on Earth fits a particular mold, but life from other planets might break free from that mold, making it difficult for us to identify. We could even be oblivious to unfamiliar forms of life right under our noses. more

Microbes in Deep Sea Rocks Eat Global Warming Gas

Alvin at work on the seafloor. Image: WHOI October 16, 2014

A new study finds that tiny microbes inside rocks in the deep ocean are munching on methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Although it doesn’t remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, while it's there, it is more than 80 times more potent than CO2. more

Rock-dwelling microbes remove methane from deep sea

alt_txt October 14, 2014

Methane-breathing microbes that inhabit rocky mounds on the seafloor could be preventing large volumes of the potent greenhouse gas from entering the oceans and reaching the atmosphere, according to a new study by Caltech researchers. more

Earth's Alien Habitats--Harbingers of Subsurface Life on Mars?

alt_txt July 25, 2014

The surface of Mars is incredibly violent, hostile and destructive to any kind of biosignature, whereas things get preserved much better when they are buried. Astrobiologits are thinking that if there’s life on Mars or if there’s evidence of past life, we have a much better chance of finding it in the subsurface. more

Probing the Depths of the Methane World

Methane bubbles rising from the seafloor April 29, 2014

In 2011, Jennifer Glass joined a scientific cruise to study a methane seep off of Oregon’s coast. In these cold, dark depths, microbes buried in the sediment feast on methane that seeps through the seafloor. more

Hunting for Deep-Sea Worms in Oil-Dripping Rocks

Alvin at work on the seafloor. Image: WHOI March 21, 2014

Much of the research on the Alvin Science Verification Cruise deals with the invisible: geochemical gradients, thermal anomalies, microbial metabolisms – the hidden determinants of incongruous oases in the deep sea.  But if you want to get your hands dirty with seafloor mud, look no further than Atlantis’ wet lab – that’s where Amanda Demopoulos and Jill Bourque sift through cylindrical cores of smelly sulfurous mud, digging for worms. more

Seafloor Sensors, Hand Delivered by Alvin

A gas-tight water collector is deposited on the seafloor by Alvin’s robotic arm. (Image: Kang Ding / WHOI) March 20, 2014

Right now, 1100 meters beneath the surface of the northern Gulf of Mexico, a six-cylinder metallic object is waiting to be picked up. It will be a dark, lonely night, but the information this device is collecting may well open the door to a new realm of deep-sea geochemistry. more

Alvin’s Return to the Sea

Alvin is recovered after the first dive of its new incarnation. Divers assist with the process before diving into the water, to be picked up by a nearby boat. (Image: Chris German) March 18, 2014

Atlantis awoke on Saturday morning to the gentle swell and sway of the northern Gulf of Mexico, a ring of drilling platforms on the horizon forming flickering constellations in the pre-dawn darkness. But the back deck of the ship was a hive of activity, with scientists and crew preparing for the morning’s highly anticipated event: the first science dive of the new and improved Alvin submersible. more

(Re) Introducing: The Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin

Traffic on the lower Mississippi River, just south of New Orleans. (Image: Jeff Marlow) March 17, 2014

Alvin, built in the early 1960s, is probably the most well traveled scientific submersible on the planet. Or was. Well, is, sort of. The grammatical uncertainty comes from the partial reconstruction of the vessel that has taken place over the last three years. more

Archaea are eaten too

Dorvilleids family of worms photo courtesy of Andrew Thurber, Oregon State University March 17 2012

A team of scientists has documented for the first time that animals can and do consume Archaea – a type of single-celled microorganism thought to be among the most abundant life forms on Earth. more

Hot meets cold at new deep-sea ecosystem: 'Hydrothermal seep'

nemone-hermit crab symbiosis in the deep, with the crab using the anemone as a shell March 7, 2012

Decades ago, marine scientists made a startling discovery in the deep sea. They found environments known as hydrothermal vents, where hot water surges from the seafloor and life thrives without sunlight. Then they found equally unique, sunless habitats in cold areas where methane rises from seeps on the ocean bottom. Could vents and seeps co-exist in the deep, happily living side-by-side? No one thought so. Until now. more

Moore Foundation funds 16 top scientists for high-risk marine microbial ecology research

alt_txt December 3, 2012

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced its Marine Microbiology Initiative investigator awards today, providing 16 scientists from 14 different institutions a total of up to $35 million over five years to pursue pioneering research in the field of marine microbial ecology. more

Battle of the Subs: Alvin vs. Jason

Greg Rouse - An aeolid nudibranch, one of the hundreds of invertebrate animals found at Hydrate Ridge. September 20, 2011

After nine days at sea, the Atlantis research vessel coasted last Thursday under the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco, where the Transamerica Pyramid was shrouded in the requisite layer of fog.  The whirlwind cycle of sample processing was over, and we were back on dry land, though it would take another couple of days before the boat stopped rocking in my head. more

Close Encounters With Deep-Sea Samples

Jeffrey Marlow - Test tubes lined up, awaiting samples for DNA and geochemical analysis. September 7, 2011

As the crew of the Atlantis swings the sample-laden gear elevator onto the starboard deck, crystal drops of seawater drip from its spindly steel legs. Wearing purple latex gloves, the science party grips buckets of chilled water, ready to transfer the cargo to the walk-in refrigerator, where the microbes, worms, snails and other creatures of the deep will be much more comfortable. more

A Graveyard Shift in Mission Control

Jeffrey Marlow- The interior of the Jason control room. September 5, 2011

On the aft deck of the research vessel Atlantis, a pale green corrugated container sits nestled between air ducts and water-tight doors. It’s an unassuming pod, seemingly no different from the millions of shipping containers piled up at ports around the world, but once you step through the door, it quickly becomes clear you’re not in Long Beach anymore. more

Return to Hydrate Ridge

Jeffrey MarlowThe bridge in Astoria, Ore., where the journey begins. September 1, 2011

Few places instantly evoke more memories for me than the Atlantis research vessel. Sleepless sample processing, orange-flavored Tang, the nightly lullaby of waves pounding against the hull, new worlds seen through a microscope — it all comes flooding back the moment I cross the swaying gangplank and sign in as a member of the science party for Atlantis Cruise 18-10... more

0.144 Leagues Under the Sea

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution A mound covered in white microbial mat encountered near the Pinnacle of Hydrate Ridge South. August 9, 2010

Saturday night, long after the sun had gone down but long before the day’s final sample had been processed, I wandered out to Atlantis’s bow with a steaming mug of peppermint tea. Hearing the waves lap against the boat, feeling the salty breeze and looking into the expansive blackness, I tried to savor the moment, anticipating the fact that on Sunday, I’d make my first dive on Alvin. more

Creepy Crawlies and Lady Gaga Heads

Danwei Huang and Ignacio Carvajal; Copyright: Greg Rouse The tentacles of this cirratulid worm, collected by the Levin lab, are used for sensing the environment in search of food. August 6, 2010

It’s dangerous to get complacent on a research expedition. Just when you start to take things for granted, just when you think you’ve got the sampling process down to the second (scoop, pour, put in freezer, repeat), something goes ever so slightly wrong. more

Seasickness, and Mutualistic Bacterial Mats

Jeffrey Marlow The Alvin submersible being lifted into the ocean. Support divers on top are poised to detach it from the crane. August 5, 2010

At 7:45 this morning, Alvin emerged from its hangar, creeping slowly along bolted tracks toward the A-frame crane that would hoist it off the back deck and into the northern Pacific Ocean. Inside the sub, two scientists, Abigail Green and Tony Rathburn, would help the pilot, Sean Kelley, cruise the seafloor in search of good samples with bacterial mats, clams, soft corals or other interesting life forms. more

Meet Alvin, the Deep-Sea Submersible

Mark Spear The Alvin submersible on a previous expedition. August 4, 2010

We awoke to the swell and sway of the Columbia River bar as Atlantis navigated its way into the Pacific Ocean. The 600-foot wide channel through the bar is one of the most treacherous passages in the country, as the river flows straight into the opposing waves of the ocean. It has claimed more than 2,000 large boats over the years, but fortunately ours was not one of them. more

Deep Sea Methane Vents at Hydrate Ridge

Jeffrey Marlow A view from the Astoria Column. August 3, 2010

Over the next 12 days, our contingent of 24 scientists and 30 crew members will be mounting a scientific assault on Hydrate Ridge, a fascinating site 90 kilometers off the Oregon coast where methane gas flows out of the earth’s crust and into the deep ocean. Methane has a P.R. problem: In the atmosphere, the gas is a troublemaker, contributing to climate change with 25 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. But on the seafloor, it’s a lifeline... more

Victoria J. Orphan: Deep Partnerships

Jeffrey Marlow A view from the Astoria Column. December 1, 2006

Victoria Orphan wanted to be a marine biologist ever since kindergarten. She even wrote it down in a Dr. Seuss book called My Book About Me. It still sits in her childhood bedroom, which she had painted to resemble a deep-sea scene. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, Orphan studied marine biology and was headed in the direction of big-game ecology when she took a course with Ed DeLong, now a microbiologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She had a realization. more