Gathered around a white plastic table, four scientists surgically explored a quaking pile of mud, freshly scraped from the bottom of the ocean and spiked with twitching tentacles and antennae. In the persistent dusk of an Arctic October, illuminated only by the navigation lights of their ship, the scientists’ orange rubber jumpsuits looked like a collection of traffic cones, bright and reflective against the murky sky. With long tweezers, the researchers organized the mess before them into tidy piles of sponges, starfish, and squirts, delicately picking each out of the morass as if extracting a prized shrimp from a takeout carton of lo mein. I hopped back and forth behind them, trying to stay warm in the biting ocean air and out of range of any sludge flung from the work area. Even in the Arctic, mud is still mud—copious, dirty, and potentially filled with life.

To the 24 scientists on board the Helmer Hanssen, a 209-foot, navy-blue-hulled fishing-boat-turned-research-vessel, the scene was deeply familiar. Most of the members of the team are based in Norway, at the University of Tromsø—the northernmost university in the world—where they are part of a lab called Marbio; the Helmer Hanssen is their home during annual, and sometimes biannual, trips in search of undiscovered organisms. The group is looking for compounds that have novel effects on other living substances, hoping that some of their finds will lead to new, lifesaving treatments for cancer and drug-resistant infections in humans. Their type of mission—traveling deep into rain forests, or to the top of the world, to look for rare, microscopic life—is called bioprospecting. The Helmer Hanssen had just embarked on its 14th bioprospecting trip in half as many years (the 13th was skipped superstitiously), and this time, I had been invited along on the voyage.

Two days earlier, our …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Best of


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