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Mission 31 to splash down on June 1

Nine miles off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., and 63 feet beneath the waves lies the world’s only underwater research lab: Aquarius. “There’s no place like it on earth,” said Mark Patterson, professor of marine and environmental science at Northeastern University, who has visited and lived within the “habitat” 10 times.

In the years it has been submerged, Aquarius has intimately assim­i­lated into the coral reef nearby. Sponges and corals dec­o­rate the exterior and a 700-​​pound grouper has taken up res­i­dence underneath. Inside, it’s a ver­i­table underwater apartment complex complete with kitchen, sleeping quarters, and Wi-​​Fi.

“It’s like a miniature city immersed in the envi­ron­ment,” said Brian Helmuth, a professor of marine and environmental science and public policy at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, which is located on a peninsula at historic East Point in Nahant, Mass.

Focused on urban coastal sus­tain­ability, the MSC researchers have a strong interest in under­standing deeply integrated human-​​ocean sys­tems such as Aquarius. Oper­ated by Florida Inter­na­tional Uni­ver­sity, the habitat will become home to a team of aquanauts—including Helmuth—beginning on June 1 for a 31-​​day expe­di­tion, aptly named Mission 31. Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques-​​Yves Cousteau, the famed ocean explorer and cre­ator of the first ocean floor habi­tats for humans, will spear­head the mis­sion in honor of the 50th anniver­sary of his grandfather’s Con­shelf Two mission.

“The over­ar­ching theme for Mis­sion 31 is the human-​​ocean con­nec­tion within the lens of explo­ration and discovery,” Cousteau said.

North­eastern will take the lead as sci­en­tific partner during the second half of the mis­sion, when Hel­muth will begin his two-​​week-​​long sub­mer­sion. The expe­di­tion aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving global chal­lenges in sustainability, one of the university’s core research themes.

The extended length of the dive allows the aquanauts to “sat­u­rate,” meaning the gases inside their bodies equilibrate with the surrounding high-​​pressure envi­ron­ment. This allows for more in-​​depth, long-​​term research investigations not nor­mally per­mitted during the stan­dard hour-​​long dives, which require a period of depressurization or “offgassing” in order to pre­vent serious illness.

As part of Mission 31, Northeastern will pursue four main research projects all centered on the theme of coral reef ecology in the context of global change. Helmuth will be underwater with Aquarius for two full weeks, while the rest of the Northeastern team—which includes Patterson, three graduate students, and two research tech­ni­cians stationed “topside”—will be conducting shorter-​​term dives throughout that same period. In addi­tion, Stephen W. Director, Northeastern’s provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, will dive to Aquarius to visit Helmuth and the rest of the Aquarius team. Director’s dive will be streamed live to the Boston Museum of Sci­ence, part of an ongoing educational outreach component of Northeastern’s part of the mission.

In the first research project—part of an existing National Science Foun­da­tion grant to Patterson’s lab—the Northeastern team will create electrical models of two different types of coral bodies and their respective responses to stress. Data will be collected throughout the two-​​week-​​long stay at Aquarius.

Secondly, the team will be collecting “pea-​​sized” tissue samples from 14 coral species for the Ocean Genome Legacy, Northeastern’s partner and a publicly accessible biorepos­itory of DNA samples from ocean species around the globe that is now located at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center.

One of those species, the barrel sponge, can live for more than two mil­lennia and is the focus of a third project, which will be led by Patterson’s and Helmuth’s labs. The researchers will use state-​​of-​​the-​​art mon­i­toring instruments to track the flow of energy through the sponges in order to examine the non-​​lethal effects of climate change on the organism.

In the fourth project, the team will collect spec­i­mens of zoo­plankton from throughout the water column 24 hours a day. Global change has been a primary driver of coral reef decline over the last half century, and many studies have shown that corals weather these effects better when they have access to food in the form of animal plankton. Currently, no good snapshot of zoo­plankton bio­di­ver­sity in these areas has been gathered to establish a baseline for examining the effects of future global change on this species set.

“The Marine Science Center has a lot of expe­ri­ence in coral ecology,” Patterson said. “We’re a global uni­ver­sity that is strongly focused on sus­tain­ability as evidenced by our Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative. Here’s an important system to get long term data on the health of corals and coral reefs, which is obvi­ously influ­enced by human actives on the land and sea.”

– By Angela Herring

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