Custom Microscope for Ocean Exploration

Ocean PictureResearchers of oceanography have, for a while, been crafting new and innovative technology to explore more of the ocean floor. While engineers have churned out everything from humanoid robots to submersibles, there is something to be said for getting up close. This is why a research team at Scripps Institution of Oceanography has created an underwater microscope. This new exploration technology is meant to be operated by divers and studies naturally occurring processes on the seafloor at a millimeter scale. Biological processes on the ocean floor have, in the past, been observed by taking samples from different areas to labs. This microscope gives researchers the unique opportunity to study biological processes as they happen, undisturbed.

It is called the Benthic Underwater Microscope, and it is the first device able to take data from the ocean floor at such a small scale. It has a diver interface that is attached to a microscopic imaging unit. The unit itself is magnified, has LED lights for fast exposure times, and has the ability to change focus, much like the human eye does to best view what it is studying. According to the researchers, this microscope even has the ability to see single cells.

This new device was first tested in the Red Sea. The researchers wanted to see how much of the interaction between two corals it could pick up. The microscope showed that these corals, who were rivals, were actually emitting filaments to secrete enzymes in attempts to break down the tissue of the other. It was a purely chemical battle for more space on the ocean floor. The researchers made sure of this by moving two coral of the same species close to each other and observing that the same chemical warfare did not take place. This has determined that coral are smart enough to recognize if they are surrounded by others of their kind or by different species, and they react accordingly.

The next target of the researchers was just off of Maui, where a large coral bleaching event had taken place. The microscope showed that initial signs of algae colonization were happening on the bleached coral, in between coral polyps. This discovery is huge in the study of the abilities of algae. It shows that algae is able to completely take over coral when bleaching is occurring.

The above are just initial findings of this new microscope, but they show the vast implications of its creation. Instead of having to bring samples of life on the ocean floor back to a lab, this device allows the ocean floor to become a lab. With it, researchers are able to see microscopic processes happening at a natural rate. I am excited to see what else we will find.