Expert: Jose Lopez & Microbes

Happy Hagfish Day!

We caught up with Dr. Jose Lopez to talk to him about microbes, especially the relationship between whale worms and bacteria. Good stuff, right? Dr. Lopez is a Professor at Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Dr. Lopez. We think microbes might just be the perfect star for Hagfish Day. Why do you think microbes are cooler than a great white shark or dolphin?

  • JL: Because we can’t see them. Use your imagination, but they are everywhere.

What was your first thought when you heard that hagfish finally got their own holiday?  

  • JL: I jumped up and down because I can’t believe the unseen finally getting their due.

 Tell us about whale bone eating worms or the “whale fall specialists”

  • JL: When a big whale dies, it eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Hagfish go for the easy parts to eat – the flesh. The bones take a long time to degrade. That’s where Osadex worms and their symbiotic pals, microbes come in to play, which were discovered by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Some experts say a carcass can last 20 to 50 years ocean floor, depending on how deep and where. The fallen whale is like an oasis buffet. All of a sudden, there is all this fat, flesh, bone. Animals like the whale worm have adapted to find these oases in the ocean desert. They have a specialized physiology.

Osadex means bone eating. Once worm larvae settle, they imbed into the bone. Osadex put together root-like structures, imbeds into bone because which is very hard.

Osadex worms depend solely on a symbiotic relationship with specific bacteria, which are adapted to digest the lipids (chemosymbiosis). Because Osadex worms do not have a mouth or anus, bacteria do all the digesting.

Cows are dependent on the symbiotic bacteria in their stomach to digest the cellulose in the grass they eat. It’s the same thing with Osadex worms. The bacteria is within the very small worm. The worm imbeds in the bone and the bacteria helps digests what’s in bone for that worm. What’s good for the host worm is also good for the microbes.

Osadex symbionts are related to tubeworms and polychaete worms.

Hagfish provide an important jumpstart to clean out the carcass and expose bone. Osadex depend on hagfish to prep the whale!

How long have you been studying microbes? Do you study them from shore, a ship, a sub?

  • JL: I started getting into microbes after studying marine sponge hosts. They are filter feeders and have microbes in their bodies. Before this, I was studying coral genetics. Then I moved to sponges and then indirectly sponge’s symbionts – microbes. I did my doctoral work on cat and genetics. Some might wonder why I moving to less charismatic animals, cats to corals to sponges to microbes. That is where the cool biology is.

Why microbes?

  • JL: Everything starts with microbes, something bigger eats that then protozoon eat that then zooplankton, small fish, snails….and it goes all the way up.

Many kinds of microbes are not as bad as people think because most do not cause disease. Microbes create ecosystems. They are the basis of food webs. Microbes do important and beneficial activities and functions for the ecosystem or specific individual.

Bacteria (a kind of microbe) carries out important functions such as helping some animals digest food, photosynthesize, and create atmosphere. Much of our oxygen comes from the ocean. Microscopic algae, diatoms, and bacteria produce about 20-30% of it.

Microbes make good biochemists – they can produce a stunning array of compounds, some of which could be used as medicines.

We also have microbes on and in people. They are natural passengers and important to our health.

What can we learn from microbes?

  • JL: If a little bacterium can change the environment, why can’t we? We have about 9 billion people on the planet and it’s unmistakable that we’ve added more CO2 and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We depend on microbes on a daily basis convert CO2 back into oxygen.

 What are you studying now (what is your research about)?  

  • JL: I have several different subprojects with DEEPEND Consortium. I have been pleased with the data generated, implications, and characterizing microbial communities from shallow to deep parts of the Gulf of Mexico. We’re using DNA sequencing to get a handle on communities. Since 2015, we’ve had five research cruises and collected water from various sites and depths. Now we’re in the process of putting all together. This research tells us what microbes are in water column and differences between shallow and deep.

Another fascinating project is linked to anglerfish biologists. We’ve sequenced unique symbiont bacteria that live in the anglerfish’s lure. Bacteria produce the light (bioluminescence) needed to lure in prey in the deep dark sea.

There are many other projects that keep me busy.

What is the goal or how will this research help?

  • JL: It will help us discover what’s in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deep Horizon Oil Spill. We can look at changes over time, the dynamics of the Gulf and get clues of communities that are there now and what would happen if there was another oil spill or disaster.

How can I support your research?  

  • JL: Visit our Oceanographic Center, follow us on our Facebook page, and visit the DEEPEND Consortium website. Donations to research welcome are nonprofit college like to train the next generation of students.

How can people help hagfish, marine microbes, and the deep-sea habitat?

  • JL: Be aware that everything use can end up in the ocean, trash, plastic, and chemicals. Protect what you can. Try to think green find ways to be sustainable. Just like the microbe starts small and creates and ecosystem, one person can help. Don’t be afraid of science.

 One last questions, are you wearing a *slime shirt right now?

  • JL: No, but it’s not a bad idea to have one when I work with fire coral. Then I might not get stung.
*If you’re wondering where you can get your hagfish slime clothes, read our interview with Dr. Douglas Fudge or our article, “Save the Planet, Wear Hagfish Slime”


DEEPEND research, outreach, and education funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative