|The magazine of University of Houston-Clear Lake
Spring/Summer 2013 | volume 19 | number 2
Finding Life Below the Sea
If you’re looking for UHCL Assistant Professor of Biology Heath Mills, your best bet is to start with a map, a computer and access to Skype. Mills travels around the world conducting research and that often means that his lessons are communicated from research vessels, oil rigs and locations far from his lab in UHCL’s Bayou Building.
Mills, who specializes in geomicrobiology and molecular microbial ecology, studies sediment samples from deep in the ocean floor and presents his findings to scientists across the globe. His lab includes industrial-sized freezers full of sediment samples, some of which were taken from two kilometers below the seafloor.
“We are all trying to get a better understanding of the limits of life,” says Mills. “What are the true limitations for life on the planet? What goes on? What is the longevity of this kind of life? It’s up to us to be creative and look.”
The figurative “us” refers to current scientists and the future ones who take his classes.
“Students keep coming up with ‘what if’ and I’m always excited to see that … to see a novel perspective to something that we have been investigating for many years,” says Mills, who adds that all the future researchers make him love his job.
Although originally pre-med while in college during his undergraduate days at Duke University, the 38-year-old Mills said that while he enjoyed research and “discovery,” he learned quickly that he “didn’t want to treat symptoms.” He wanted to look beyond that and a microbiology lab seemed to combine all of his interests into one. After one-and-a-half years as a technician in a research lab in Atlanta, he renewed his studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology to earn his doctorate in applied biology before completing his postdoctoral work in oceanography at Florida State University.
His research blends biology, geology and chemistry to look at how changes affect the future of our ecosystem and requires, on average, one trip a month to remote locations.
“How will this impact the environment and the underrepresented population of our ecosystems? How does biology change?” asks Mills when talking about his research.
“I’ll travel anywhere,” says Mills, whose work has taken him to the middle of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as conferences and experiments in Asia, South America, Australia and Europe. On average, he participates in off-shore research cruises two to three times a year.
This can-do and will-do attitude helps Mills be successful in his research. A two-month Atlantic Ocean research cruise from mid- August to mid-November in 2011 resulted in Mills appearing in a documentary called “North Pond: The Search for Intraterrestrials.” Also known as Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 336, the cruise allowed scientists to explore the sub-seafloor at a midocean- ridge.
During the Atlantic Ocean cruise, Mills discovered life in the sediment, chemoautotrophs that were first documented elsewhere in the mid-’70s. He has since studied how the chemoautotrophs survive with no light and oxygen and very little food.
“Everything we eat has been developed from the sun,” explains Mills. “But what we are looking for and find below the ocean floor are energy and life forms that come from chemical energy and are chemosynthetic.”
Mills says that they wanted to see how the ocean crust, specifically in the study of the sediment pond of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, has changed throughout time either by geological or biological factors.
“There is almost as much biomass below the sea floor as above it,” says Mills, explaining that he and fellow scientists on the ship looked at areas 1.6 km below the seafloor in existence for 125 million years.
The investigation and subsequent discoveries through several other expeditions garner invitations for Mills to conferences and presentations around the world, including a meeting in his new backyard: NASA Johnson Space Center. Scientists and astrophysicists there want to learn more about sub-seafloor activity and its possible comparison to life on other planets and, in particular, Mars.
“Dr. Mills’ studies of deep-ocean extremophiles is helping to expand our understanding of the physical and chemical limits of life on Earth,” says NASA Johnson Space Center Astromaterials Curator Carlton Allen. “This field of research is guiding the search for life on other worlds.”
Back on land, Mills continues to search for the smallest forms of life in his freezers full of sediment samples. “We want to see who is there and how they’re changing. Are they history or are they still alive?”
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