Importance of Natural Resources

2013 (29th) Japan Prize: Dr. Grassle

2013 (29th) Japan Prize Laureate in the field of
Biological Production and Biological Environment John Frederick Grassle, Ph.D. (United States) Dr. John Frederick Grassle was
born in 1939 in Ohio, United States. Having grown up far from the ocean,
Dr. Grassle during his high school years was greatly impressed with a book
written byJacques-Yves Cousteau, one of the developers of Aqua-lung. From there on, he became evermore
drawn to the world of deep sea. In 1957, Dr. Grassle entered Yale University. Although his major was Zoology, he participated
in the summer research program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution in Massachusetts under the recommendation of his supervisor. As he undertook marine life
field work for the institute, he developed an aspiration
to become an oceanographer. After graduating from
Duke University in 1967 with a Ph.D. in marine biogeography,
he received the Fulbright scholarship and began his research on the
marine life and ecosystems of Australian coral reefs. As his research outcome became
recognized, Dr. Grassle was able to make a start as an oceanographer at the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. At the institute, Dr. Grassle
worked under Dr. Howard Sanders who was a key figure in
oceanographic research. Dr. Sanders, in the past, has
even been visited by Emperor Showa,
who was a keen biology researcher. Around this time, Dr. Grassle
married his wife Judy who he met through research
studies at Duke University. After his eldest son Tom was born,
Dr. Grassle enjoyed his family life between the busy
research schedules. During the 1970s, the institute
was setting out to discover underwater volcanoes and
hydrothermal vents that were thought to exist near
oceanic plate boundaries. In 1977, hydrothermal vents that
spew out heated water were discovered for the first time,
near the deep seabed surrounding Galapagos islands. Upon this discovery, Dr. Grassle
began his own exploration in 1979 using Deep Submersible Alvin, a manned
deep-ocean research submersible, and succeeded in collecting
biological samples. It was a major step forward for
him in deep-sea biology research. Of the hydrothermal vents,
those that spew out 300°C black-colored water
are called Black smokers This heated water contains toxic
compounds such as hydrogen sulfide. On top of such harsh environment,
the deep sea is beyond the reach of sunlight, which means
photosynthetic organisms cannot survive. Therefore, it was thought to be
a desert like environment with very few surviving organisms. However, the surroundings of
hydrothermal vents had rich ecosystems hosting communities of
organisms like tube worms with cylindrical shells
and giant white clams. This discovery convinced
Dr. Grassle to believe that there were life forms that
derive energy not from sunlight but from substances like
hydrogen sulfide that come from the Earth’s interior. Dr. Grassle’s hypothesis was proven
through later research and it came to be known as “chemosynthetic” ecosystem. Hydrothermal vents feed surrounding
water with chemical substances from the Earth’s interior
like hydrogen sulfide. Microorganisms such as sulfur
bacteria then synthesize organic matter from chemical
substances through oxidation. Larger organisms like tube worms
survive by “symbiosis” which involves hosting these microorganisms
inside their body. Thereafter, Dr. Grassle sampled
mud from various seabeds around the world and
collected unprecedented amount of data on deep sea. Through his empirical research,
he discovered that deep sea ecosystems formed over long
periods of time and that it was extremely
rich in biodiversity. From these discoveries, he concluded
that the deep sea is made up of various environments called the
“patch mosaic dynamic state”, and that its ecosystems were
as diverse as the Amazons. Furthermore, Dr. Grassle contributed
greatly to the establishment of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), the
global research network of marine life. With the aim of elucidating the
diversity of all marine species, CoML engages in the study
and analysis of long term distribution and population
of marine life. Today, the marine biodiversity is in a
rapid decline, and research by CoML is contributing significantly towards
identifying critically endangered marine environments and the
establishment of standards for measuring future changes. Furthermore, Dr. Grassle, with
the help of his research colleagues, made research findings from the
census (CoML) publically available through the Ocean Biogeographic
Information System (OBIS) database. Today, this database is
managed by UNESCO IOC, and is used around the globe. Through these efforts, Dr. Grassle
has been recognized and has received numerous awards. Besides research, Dr. Grassle is
very fond of exploring other cultures and natures of the world. Dr. Grassle continues to
take on research for our Earth with a broad vision. [To young researchers] Knowledge of nature’s history is
a proof of an educated person. In research, one must learn science
through real life experience by conducting both outdoor
and laboratory experiments. Young people who are highly interested
in science should pursue it in universities. For myself, such real life
experiences became the deciding factor in my career path.

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