Beth N. Orcutt, winner of AGU’s 2019 Asahiko Taira International Scientific Ocean Drilling Research Prize
Beth N. Orcutt

Beth N. Orcutt has made transdisciplinary contributions to microbiology and biogeochemistry in the deep oceanic subsurface through the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). She has made these advances largely through her research in ocean drilling, and she has also performed leadership roles in IODP, including serving on the Science Evaluation Panel and being chief scientist of expeditions.

In 2011, Orcutt used IODP-dilled boreholes to demonstrate colonization of native rock–hosted communities on mineral surfaces. This work opened up the basalt basement to direct microbial observation. From IODP Expedition 336 to North Pond, Orcutt showed oxygen consumption rates in subseafloor basalt-hosted ecosystems, using reaction-transport models of high-resolution oxygen concentration profiles to show that 1 nanomole of oxygen is consumed per cubic centimeter of rock per day in ~8-million-year-old basaltic crust. This was a major advance on previous work demonstrating widespread aerobic activity in subseafloor basalt.

From IODP Expedition 327 to the Juan de Fuca Ridge flank, Orcutt’s group demonstrated the microbial connections between deeply buried subseafloor basalts and the surrounding sediments. They showed that sedimentary communities are stimulated by fluids coming out of the basalts, but the microbial community composition is not changed by the presence of different kinds of basalts. From the observatories installed on this same expedition, Orcutt’s group used genomic techniques to determine the environmental role of one of the most enigmatic members of subseafloor basalt communities: the Hydrothermarchaeota. No microbial isolate has ever been obtained from this group, but it appears to be widespread among deep subseafloor ecosystems. Orcutt’s lab demonstrated for the first time that this group of organisms likely uses carbon monoxide as a respiration substrate, allowing it to be somewhat decoupled from pure heterotrophy, achieving a C1 compound–supported lifestyle.

Orcutt is also an innovator in the methods used in scientific drilling. She has evaluated the suitability of construction materials for IODP boreholes and developed flow-through Osmo colonization experiments that enhance the quality of scientific experiments that can be performed with IODP-drilled boreholes. These findings set important boundaries on the extent of influence of subseafloor basalt communities and have enabled discoveries by other researchers as well. By continually being open and courageous with new methods, field work, and data interpretation, Orcutt has made truly great breakthroughs that have made her a highly respected member of the scientific drilling community.

—Karen Lloyd, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


I am deeply honored to receive the Asahiko Taira Prize for my involvement with the international scientific ocean drilling programs. Dr. Taira inspires me with his commitment to scientific progress and international collaboration, and I hope to live up to his leadership example within the AGU and IODP communities. I am also indebted to Karen Lloyd for her generous citation and unflagging support.

My interest in ocean drilling science was sparked during my undergraduate studies by reading papers on curious methane patterns in marine sediments. With the incredible support of Mandy Joye at the University of Georgia and Antje Boetius and Kai-Uwe Hinrichs in Bremen, Germany, I had the opportunity to delve into studying sediment hydrocarbon cycling during my Ph.D. research. These experiences opened my eyes to the possibilities for international collaborative research within the ocean drilling program and also inspired a peculiar passion for working with increasingly more difficult and low-biomass samples.

My immersion into the drilling program began in earnest under the leadership of Katrina Edwards at the University of Southern California, who supported me as a postdoc to design experiments to study microbe–mineral interactions in oceanic crust. This experience was foundational for my involvement in IODP Expeditions 327 and 336 specifically and for my career in general. Katrina’s unapologetic enthusiasm for achieving aspirational scientific goals was infectious and unmatched. I am thankful for the lessons I learned from her and miss her dearly.

Through the doors that Katrina opened, I had opportunities to get involved with borehole observatory research, with the unendingly generous support of colleagues Keir Becker, Andrew Fisher, and Geoff Wheat. I am indebted to Bo Barker Jørgensen for allowing me to pursue these efforts during my second postdoc, to Graham Shimmield for his encouragement to continue my interests as I started my own laboratory, to Gretchen Früh-Green for inspiring me to take on more leadership roles, and to Jan Amend, Julie Huber, and the entire Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations community for making deep biosphere research so fun. Ocean drilling and observatory science are truly collaborative efforts, and I am grateful to all of the scientific teams and partners I have had the honor of working with and learning from.

—Beth N. Orcutt, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, East Boothbay, Maine


(2020), Beth N. Orcutt receives 2019 Asahiko Taira International Scientific Ocean Drilling Research Prize, Eos, 101, Published on 10 March 2020.

Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.