Researchers discover microorganisms and underground springs in the deepest levels of the lowest spot on earth.

Calling the Dead Sea “dead” is a misnomer. The inland salt lake located at the lowest spot on earth, straddling Israel and Jordan, does contain life. It doesn’t hold big fish, or attract seagulls looking for a drink, but a new study suggests that it plays host to a potentially rich number of microorganisms, some never before described by science.

A few days after the American photographer Spencer Tunick enlisted 1,000 volunteers to “strip” for the Dead Sea and be photographed, an Israeli and German research team announced some exciting findings from a summer research expedition: microorganisms that present themselves as photosynthetic microbial mats about 150 meters from shore, 30 meters down in the mineral-rich sea.

After an algae bloom in 1992 following a heavy rain, scientists already knew there could be life in the Dead Sea, but where and how much remained to be seen.

Since the Dead Sea is a hostile environment for life forms, few biologists were interested in studying the hard-to-reach lower limits. Only specialized divers can sink to the deepest parts of the Dead Sea; even on the surface, swimmers are cautioned not to put their heads underwater.


Working in extremes

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany; the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva located a new series of underwater springs at the Dead Sea. And living in and around them are new forms of life.

The discovery, says Danny Ionescu of Max Planck, opens up a lot of new questions for microbiologists studying the survival of organisms in harsh environments.

“I am interested in extreme environments, and in the past I studied thermal springs in Jordan,” says Ionescu. “The Dead Sea is extreme because of its high salinity and salt composition. We are always learning how organisms, especially those in microenvironments, deal with the Dead Sea environment. Up until now it has been mostly boring.”

Worth fighting for

The Dead Sea is losing its water at a rapid rate, due to the drying of the Jordan River and chemical industries in the southern end mining the sea for bromide and phosphorus.

“The Dead Sea is definitely declining in water level, and this is due to our work as people,” Ionescu says. “Whether it is doomed or will dry up to become a small pond –– this is debatable. Eventually it will reach some balance between surface area and vapors, a hundred years from now. But it’s definitely an environment worth saving and maintaining and researching.”

The results of the study may have far-reaching significance concerning feasibility studies suggesting that the diminishing sea can be revived with water pumped in from the Red Sea in the south. This potential project, the “Red-Dead Canal,” is being investigated by the World Bank as a peace project to boost economic ties between Israel and its neighbor Jordan.

Environmentalists fear that Red Sea water might contain other microorganisms that would disrupt the fragile balance of the Dead Sea.

According to Ionescu, there have been several studies of the impact of mixing the two waters. Some nutrients would likely make it to the Dead Sea via the Red Sea’s future desalination plants. Like zebra mussels in North America and purple loosestrife in canals around the world, introducing new species in environments with no competing factors can have destructive consequences.

“Now we are talking about finding an additional source of water and microorganisms,” says Ionescu. “It’s true that they probably do not survive in the Dead Sea because it’s hostile – but after five years [of refilling] eventually the Dead Sea will get re-stratified like it was before 1979. This would mean less saline on top, where the third source might change the microbial balance in the Dead Sea.”

These are the research questions Ionescu and his Israeli counterparts will be seeking to answer as studies continue.

By Rivka Borochov

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