Franklin Laureate Database
J. Frederick Grassle, Ph.D.
Director Emeritus, Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Subject: Earth Science
Award: Benjamin Franklin
Citation: The 2009 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science is presented to J. Frederick Grassle for pioneering research leading to our understanding of the unique ecosystems near volcanic vents at the sea floor, the first ever found fueled by chemical energy from the Earth's interior instead of sunlight.
The first views in the late 1970s of the amazingly diverse ecosystems near volcanic vents on the sea floor stunned biologists and ocean scientists alike. Encrusted with never-before-seen species, these vents offered the chance to observe life entirely unlike any other life forms on Earth, as the species receive their energy solely from underground chemicals and heat, and never from the sun. Frederick Grassle -- after hearing from geologists of the vents existence -- mounted the first biological expeditions that provided early images. The excitement they generated created a new focus in oceanic research, forcing scientists to re-think their previous assumptions about requirements for life.
Grassle earned a B.S. in Zoology from Yale in 1961 and went on to earn his Ph.D. at Duke in 1967. After a Fulbright Fellowship at University of Queensland, Australia, Grassle worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he remained from 1969 to 1989. Today he is director emeritus of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University.
Grassle's work has long focused on the amazing diversity of creatures in the ocean -- akin in some areas to the great diversity of the rain forest. His earliest work was in trying to determine why the ocean floor was so supportive of such great diversity. His theory: the ocean floor, much like the rain forest, provides varying isolated nooks of differing environments allowing different species to evolve undisturbed. His interest in such fascinating environments spurred him to action when word first came from the geological community of the numerous animals living near deep sea hydrothermal vents. Grassle led the first biological expedition to investigate and systematically classify the vast numbers of species along such vents near the Galapagos Rift, which receive all their energy from the chemicals and heat of the vents as opposed to the traditional source of energy for all life, the Sun. His own enthusiasm and expert questions about their life cycle and methods of reproduction (which biologists are still trying to answer, nearly 30 years later) helped spawn a flurry of interest in studying these creatures so completely unrelated to life as we know it on Earth.
Grassle currently drives a project called the Census of Marine Life -- a global initiative to study biodiversity in the oceans. The project tags large migratory species to track their movements and catalog the millions of oceanic species currently known. With a completion date of 2010, the census will help scientists to understand the varying dependencies ecosystems have on even the smallest or rarest of species, supporting everything from commercial fishery success to understanding human impact on the oceans.
Among other honors, Grassle has been awarded the 2004 Grand Prix des Sciences de la Mer Albert de Monaco for major contributions to the advancement of the ocean sciences throughout the world. He has had six species and one genus of polychaetes, three species of mollusks, and three species of crustacea named after him.