Microbial Stowaways

Project title: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the Deep Gulf of Mexico


About this project

“Microbial Stowaways” is a NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research funded project led by The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), in collaboration with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). The focus of this project is to investigate two unexplored, wooden-hulled shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico. The work will address their cultural history, and their contemporary role in microbial biodiversity in the deep-sea.

Archeological investigation of these two sites and sample collection took place during a research expedition from June 24thto July 3th, 2019 on board USM’s RV Point Sur. During this 9-day research cruise we used the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Odysseus to explore these shipwrecks, discover their cultural history, and collect samples to reveal the diversity of microbiological life around 19th century wooden shipwrecks. We also deployed seafloor lander experiments to research how biofilms form on artificial reefs in the deep-sea, and how microorganisms are transported across space and time.

The wooden shipwrecks found in the Gulf of Mexico can be viewed as a museum of maritime history, and past economies. They also become artificial reefs and pockets of biodiversity in the deep ocean. We will use interdisciplinary approaches, and merge archaeological, biological, geological and computational expertise to study cultural and ecological treasures, and provide a foundation for future deep-sea microbial exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.


Project Objectives:

  1. Accomplish first archeological investigation of two unexplored, wooden-hulled shipwrecks (likely from the 19th century)
  2. Explore the role of shipwrecks in seafloor microbial biogeography.
  3. Design and test computational tools that use the biological character of shipwrecks to support future discoveries

Two publications resulting from this work are now available:

  1. Hamdan LJ, Hampel JJ, Moseley RD, Mugge RL, Ray A, Salerno JL, Damour M (2021) Deep-sea shipwrecks represent island-like ecosystems for marine microbiomes. ISME J. doi: 10.1038/s41396-021-00978-y

  2. Hampel JJ, Moseley RD, Mugge RL, Ray A, Damour M, Jones D, Hamdan LJ (2022) Deep-sea wooden shipwrecks influence sediment microbiome diversity. Limnol. Oceanogr. doi: 10.1002/lno.12008

Stay tuned for other upcoming publications!

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