Ever wonder how deep-sea fish and other animals are able to survive in an environment where the water pressure would kill us humans? According to a recent study, the secret lies in a chemical that occurs naturally in their cells.
First of all, you might think that the intense water pressure – which reaches 8 tons (7.25 tons) per square inch at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – would simply squash a person like they were a bug. There’s more to it than that, however.
Ordinarily, under normal atmospheric pressure, the water molecules within a living cell form a tetrahedron-like network. If that network changes shape – such as through the external application of pressure – vital bio-chemical processes aren’t able to take place within the cell. When this happens on a whole-body scale, it results in the death of the organism.
Led by Dr. Harrison Laurent and Prof. Lorna Dougan, scientists at Britain’s University of Leeds have discovered that in deep-sea-living creatures, a molecule known as TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) keeps the water molecule networks within the cells from becoming distorted. The deeper the animal’s habitat, the greater the amount of TMAO in their cells.
In lab tests, neutron beams were fired at water samples with and without added TMAO, which were being stored at either high or low pressure. When the samples were analyzed, it was found that the hydrogen bonds in the non-TMAO water molecules became distorted under pressure, and the molecule networks in general became compacted. In the TMAO-boosted samples, however, the hydrogen bonds were strong and stable, and the network structure was maintained.
“The TMAO provides a structural anchor which results in the water being able to resist the extreme pressure it is under,” said Laurent. “The findings are important because they help scientists understand the processes by which organisms have adapted to survive the extreme conditions found in the oceans.”
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Communications Chemistry.
Source: University of Leeds