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Giant amoeba found in Mariana Trench -- 6.6 miles beneath the sea

October 26, 2011 |  8:53 am

Xenophyophores
Talk about extremes.

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found giant amoebas 6.6 miles below the surface of the ocean, in the Mariana Trench to be exact. To put that in perspective: These amoebas, also known as xenophyophores, are living in a trench about 1 mile deeper than Mt. Everest is tall.

The previous depth record for xenophyophores was about 4.7 miles.

And when we say giant amoebas, we mean giant. Xenophyophores often exceed 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) across, according to a news release from Scripps, meaning the single-celled organism can be as large as a human hand.

But if you're imagining a giant squishy thing resembling the drawing of an amoeba in your high school biology textbook, think again. Xenophyophores, as you can see above, look more like sponges, or cauliflower coral.

"As one of very few taxa found exclusively in the deep sea, the xenophyophores are emblematic of what the deep sea offers," said Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor and deep sea biologist Lisa Levin in a statement. "They are fascinating giants that are highly adapted to extreme conditions but at the same time are very fragile and poorly studied."

Images of the xenophyophores were collected over the summer by researchers at Scripps who traveled to the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, the deepest region on the planet.

Kevin Hardy, an ocean engineer at Scripps who organized the cruise, explained that the Mariana Trench, located to the east of the Mariana Islands, has been largely unexplored until recently because the technology didn't allow it. Pressure at the bottom of the trench is about 16,500 pounds per square inch. Pressure at sea level is 14.7 psi.

The pressure at 35,000 feet below sea level is so intense, said Hardy, that human bones would be "squished into solution."

To protect the cameras and lights from crushing into smithereens, Hardy and his team constructed a sphere, 17 inches in diameter, made out of 1-inch thick-glass. Hardy said the thickness and strength of the glass allows the sphere to withstand the deep-sea pressures. "When it's deep underwater, every inch of the outside of it has the weight of the equivalent of two automobiles on it," he said.

That means that's the weight amoebas are withstanding too.

As we said earlier: Talk about extremes.

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-- Deborah Netburn

Image: A collage of different images of xenophyophores -- giant amoebas that live at the bottom of an ocean trench. Credit: Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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