China scientists build new camera to help discover mystery creatures of the deep

Mainland marine biologists hope project will help unlock mysteries of the ocean depths

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 4:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 9:41am

Scientists in Zhejiang province are developing a camera to capture images of rarely seen or undiscovered creatures living in the deepest oceans.

The camera will be able to operate at a depth of about seven kilometres and is part of a series of research projects by mainland scientists to probe some of the least-explored areas on earth.

The deepest known point on the seabed - the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench - is almost 11 kilometres deep. But even well before that depth, cameras struggle to operate in the complete darkness of the deep ocean, with the strongest lights barely able to illuminate beyond 10 metres.

A team at the Second Institute of Oceanography in Hangzhou is working on a camera that can take a series of three-dimensional images to build up a complete picture of sea creatures.

Two lenses mounted on different parts of the equipment would be able to pick out more detail than conventional underwater cameras, while taking accurate measurements of what was filmed, according to Professor Yang Junyi , a marine biologist heading the project.

"We are not building the camera to shoot 3D movies, so you probably won't be blown away by the visual effects of the final product. But it will be the most precise visual reconstruction ever of these elusive creatures," Yang said. "It may answer some of the biggest mysteries of the deep."

The camera will ultimately be mounted on deep-sea probes, including the Jiaolong, China's deepest-operating manned submersible which can dive to about seven kilometres.

The vessel has reported several sightings of mysterious marine creatures in recent years, Yang said, hence the need for a better camera to record them.

A decade-long international deep-sea survey completed in 2010 uncovered thousands of new species at depths once thought to be devoid of life.

Yang said there was intense scientific interest in the search for rare sea creatures, such as the giant squid filmed live for the first time in the Pacific Ocean by Japanese researchers last year.

China's involvement in the research would showcase the nation's maritime power and prestige, he said.

"To some extent it's gambling. We may record lots of sea creatures, but the chance of getting a glimpse of extremely large ones is very slim," he said. "But the money and effort is worth it because the prize is so big."

China's deep-sea exploration has focused almost entirely on minerals and energy resources, but in recent years the value of deep-sea life has been realised and funding increased.

Much of the research has centred on how deep-sea organisms survive in extreme conditions: at high pressure, with no light, low temperatures and sometimes high levels of toxic chemicals.

Scientists believed that an understanding of the biology of these creatures could unlock new technologies with industrial, medical and even military applications, Yang said.

Tian Xinming, a biologist at the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xiamen , has been tasked by the government to study unknown microorganisms, including bacteria, collected by China's deep-sea probes over the past decade.

The aim is to exploit the genetic traits of these organisms that thrive in extreme conditions.

"There is unlimited potential for what these little life forms can do," said Tian.

Professor Zhang Xiaobo, a marine biologist at Zhejiang University, said his team was in a race with Western competitors to see if a cancer treatment could be developed by studying a deep sea virus.

The virus, called a phage, remains active and kills diseased cells under extreme conditions such as intense heat, leading scientists to speculate that it may complement other treatments to help contain the reproduction of cancer cells.