Skip to main content

Charles Fisher

Emeritus Professor and Distinguished Senior Scholar of Biology
Chuck Fisher


Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1985

M.A., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1981

B.S., B.S. Michigan State University, 1976



Cooperative Conservation Award, Department of the Interior, 2007

Faculty Scholars Medal, Penn State, 2004

Presidential Young Investigator Award, National Science Foundation, 1991


Research Interests

Autotrophic Symbiosis

My research interests include the physiology of the animals and the ecology of the communities that inhabit cold seeps and hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. Much of this research focuses on the functioning of the major players in these communities: animals harboring autotrophic symbionts. These types of symbiotic associations are extremely important in the world’s oceans, where symbiont-dependent species are often the primary ecosystem-structuring organisms in both shallow tropical environments, such as coral reefs, and in the deep sea where biomass may be limiting. The importance of the symbioses between algae and tropical invertebrates (such as corals, clams, and anemones) has long been recognized and has been studied by biologists for over 100 years. However, it wasn’t until after the discovery of the deep-sea hydrothermal vents in 1977 that associations between chemoautotrophic bacteria and marine invertebrates were known (or for the most part even imagined). In these symbiotic associations, the bacterial symbionts oxidize reduced sulfur compounds as an energy source, fix carbon dioxide into organic carbon compounds (like green plants), and supply the bulk nutritional needs of their hosts. Often the hosts do not even have a mouth, gut, or anus, yet these animals achieve remarkable biomass at vents and seeps and are foundation fauna for communities that support hundreds of other species.

Because the animals and communities we study are found in the deep sea, most of our research begins with oceanographic expeditions conducted in conjunction with deep submergence assets, such as the submarine Alvin, or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), such as Jason II. My laboratory is currently involved in research projects at hydrothermal vent sites in the Eastern Lau Basin between Tonga and Fiji and at hydrocarbon-seep and deep-coral sites in the Gulf of Mexico. In the Western Pacific vents, we currently are focusing on the community dynamics of the vent megafauna: how animal distribution is driven by physical and chemical factors, the role of biological interactions in structuring the communities, and how the communities change naturally over time. This research has taken on a special relevance in light of current industry activities to mine the copper, silver, and gold associated with the hydrothermal chimney polymetalic sulfide deposits in the region. In the Gulf of Mexico, our current focus is on the coral communities that are in essence the climax hydrocarbon seep community in the deep Gulf. Due to our laboratories expertise in the seep and coral communities of the deep Gulf we also keep busy on a variety of projects related to damage assessment and monitoring recovery (or future damage) of these communities in the aftermath of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster.

The discovery and subsequent study of chemoautotrophic symbioses and communities has caught the interest of both the general public and the scientific community, and new associations and communities are constantly being discovered and reported. The unique mode of life represented by these animals has provided new insights into a variety of basic biological, geochemical, and oceanographic phenomena. The recent realization of the pandemic distribution of these symbioses means that we no longer can view them as biological oddities found only in isolated, remote sites, but instead must realize their central role to many communities in all of the world’s oceans.