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Micro-organisms Survive in Extreme Conditions

By Pippa Wysong, Access Excellence

West Lafayette, IN (02/09/04)- The question of whether there has ever been life on Mars is still not answered, but the fact some microbial organisms on Earth thrive in highly inhospitable conditions is one of the things that spurs on the search for life on other planets. These organisms, which for the most part are either bacteria, or bacteria-like, are commonly referred to as extremophiles because of the extreme conditions in which they thrive.

extremebacteriaTake Deinococcus radiodurans as an example. This bacterium is found in soil but can survive exposure to 3 million rads (100 rads equals 1 Gray) of ionizing radiation. It is able to repair chromosomal damage caused by heat, dehydration and radiation within 12 to 24 hours, which contributes to its survival. In contrast, humans are killed by exposure to less than 500 rads. With organisms like this on Earth thriving in these sorts of levels one wonders whether equally tolerant organisms elsewhere, such as Mars.

Bacterial mat grows at underwater vent, 160C. NOAA

“What Mars is like seems pretty bizarre to us humans. The conditions there, temperature, atmosphere and more, are very different from what we have here on Earth. On the other hand, we know there are places on Earth that are quite far from normal yet life thrives there,” said Allan Konopka, PhD, Professor and Interim Head of the department of biological sciences at Purdue University.

Thermotoga is an Archaea organism, which is bacteria-like, and is another example of a so-called extremophile. It has adapted to conditions in hot springs and hydrothermal vents, thriving at temperatures up to 90C. As well, there are mats of bacterial organisms that live in 160C temperatures around hydrothermal vents more than 1000m beneath the ocean surface. The organisms were discovered in 1999 by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at an underwater volcano site near Hawaii.

Methanopyrus another Archaea organism that lives near submarine hydrothermal vents and grows in temperatures as high as 110C. Interestingly, it gains energy from hydrogen gas and makes methane gas as a metabolic end-product. One thing extremophile life-forms on Earth have in common is a need for liquid water, and this is why there has been such a stir about the existence of frozen water on Mars. If, at any point in the planet’s long history there had been water in a fluid state, the chances there may have been living organisms at some time increase.

"Even though the conditions on Mars seem so inhospitable to us that doesn’t preclude the idea there were microbes there at some point that were able to grow there," Dr. Konopka said.

Yet life on Earth demonstrates that organisms can live in water that is very hot, or very cold, as long as it is in a liquid state. “As long as water isn’t boiling, there are microbes growing,” he said. But the temperature of boiling water differs, according to elevation and pressure. At deep-sea hot vents, far higher temperatures are required to make water boil than it would at sea level or other higher elevations. Indeed, there are microbes living in the Yellowstone hot springs, but because of the high elevation there water comes to a boil at only 80C to 90C, not 100C.

"Hydrothermal vents on the bottom of the ocean are interesting, because of all the hydrostatic pressure of a thousand meters of water above it. There, water doesn’t boil at 100C, but at 150C. Yet at those temperatures bacteria are growing and active," Dr. Konopka said. Some vents have water that is as high as 300C, but so far microbes have been found at temperatures no higher than 160C.

Dr. Konopka points out that the Dead Sea isn’t so dead either. Both the Dead Sea and Great Salt Lake have thriving communities of microscopic salt-loving life called Halobacteria. The bacteria typically live in water with extremely high salt concentrations of 4 to 5 M NaCl. The high salt concentrations are needed for the stability of the organisms' membrane and they will die in seawater, which is too dilute. Yet other organisms prefer conditions of either low or high pH, and can’t survive in a neutral environment.

There are also organisms that prefer cold temperatures, such as Polaromonas vacuolata which live in the ice in the Antarctica at temperatures that are either at, or just below, freezing. Organisms such as this, and Deinococcus radiodurans are inspiring researchers at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute to speculate there may once have been microbial life not only on Mars, but possibly on icy Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

In a universe with an estimated ten-billion trillion stars, along with all their orbiting planets, odds are life of some sort exists elsewhere.


Related information on the Internet

Additional AccessExcellence Extremophile Stories:
Giant Bacteria Discovered
Extreme Chemistry
Life with Toxic Sulfide

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