Ice Worm Publication Selected as a Spotlight Paper

A recent study co-authored by Jean Lim, University of Miami CIMAS scientist working with Kelly Goodwin and Luke Thompson at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory, has been selected out of a wide array of publications as a spotlight paper in the latest issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The focus of this special feature is an enigmatic bristle worm that can be found in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico inhabiting “methane ice”. Methane ice, or methane hydrates, represent vast reserves of natural gas which can play an important role in global carbon cycling and climate change. Although methane ice worms were first discovered in 1997, this deep sea creature has remained elusive. This paper is the first to describe the microbial diversity of this deep sea species (Sirsoe methanicola) using metagenomic analysis. 

Caption: Submersible used to collect methane ice worm specimens from a deep sea environment
Photo Credit: Chris Kelble NOAA AOML

Worm specimens were collected by the crewed Johnson Sea-Link II submersible during the SJ-009-GOM research cruise aboard the Research Vessel Seward Johnson in 2009. DNA was extracted from gut contents and body fragments once the samples were returned to the laboratory. Since that time, bioinformatics – a field that uses computer science to understand genetic information – has advanced significantly. Dr. Lim applied these advances to reveal new information about this elusive species. She discovered that bacteria associated with the worm, the microbiome, was dominated by one particular type. This type (identified as Sulfurospirillum) was thought to be “free-living” so it was a surprise to find it associated with an animal. Her analysis suggests an important role for sulfur-cycling bacteria in the life of this mysterious denizen of the deep sea. 

This research was carried out with support from the NOAA OAR ‘Omics Initiative, the Northern Gulf Institute from NOAA OAR, National Science Foundation, and National Institute of Health.

Lim, SJ, Thompson, L, Young, CM, Gaasterland, T, Goodwin, K. 2022. Dominance of Sulfurospirillum in Metagenomes Associated with the Methane Ice Worm (Sirsoe methanicola). Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 88(15)