In the summer of 2011, earthquake swarms started hitting the Canary Islands off the African coast. The ocean belched up sulfur, staining the water yellow and green. Fish died. Seawater bubbled over like a jacuzzi. Smoking lava balloons leapt from the roiling surface.
These violent events were all hallmarks of an erupting underwater volcano, which over 138 days blanketed the seafloor with newly formed volcanic rock.
By the time a group of Italian and Spanish scientists sailed to the Tagoro Volcano in 2014, things had quieted down—geologically, at least. Biologically, something extraordinary was happening. The once barren rock was now covered in a lush carpet of long, white hair, the size of eight tennis courts. “It was an impressive and surreal landscape, like discovering life on Mars,” one of the researchers, Cinzia Corinaldesi, a marine biologist at Polytechnic University of Marche, told me in an email.
What was this “life” they had discovered? The team sent a remote-operated vehicle to pluck several strands of the white hair, which was likely a new microbe. In the water, the undulating hair had a divine serenity. So they called it Venus’s hair, after the Roman goddess of love who was born of sea foam and wed to Vulcan, the god of fire and volcanos. “However, when Venus’s hair was pulled out of the seawater,” Corinaldesi wrote, “the aspect of the hair changed, losing as if by magic beauty and fullness.” And like most microbes, the Venus’s hair refused to grow in a lab.
That might have been the end of the Venus’s hair investigation in a previous era, but today’s microbiologist have powerful genetic tools at their disposal. The “hair” went limp and lost its magic out of the water, but it was no less full of DNA. Corinaldesi and her co-authors report the DNA sequencing results in a Nature Ecology & Evolution paper, where they lay out the evidence that Venus's hair is indeed a new species of bacteria.