In the 1980s and 1990s, biologists found that microbial life has an amazing flexibility for surviving in extreme environments — niches that are extraordinarily hot, or acidic, for example — that would be completely inhospitable to complex organisms. Some scientists even concluded that life may have begun on Earth in hydrothermal vents far under the ocean's surface. According to astrophysicist Dr. Steinn Sigurdsson, "There are viable bacterial spores that have been found that are 40 million years old on Earth — and we know they're very hardened to radiation." On 6 February 2013, scientists reported that bacteria were found living in the cold and dark in a lake buried a half-mile deep under the ice in Antarctica. On 17 March 2013, researchers reported data that suggested microbial life forms thrive in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on the Earth. Other researchers reported related studies that microbes thrive inside rocks up to 1900 feet below the sea floor under 8500 feet of ocean off the coast of the northwestern United States. According to one of the researchers,"You can find microbes everywhere — they're extremely adaptable to conditions, and survive wherever they are."
There are many classes of extremophiles that range all around the globe, each corresponding to the way its environmental niche differs from mesophilic conditions. These classifications are not exclusive. Many extremophiles fall under multiple categories and termed as polyextremophiles. For example, organisms living inside hot rocks deep under Earth's surface are thermophilic and barophilic such as Thermococcus barophilus. A polyextremophile living at the summit of a mountain in the Atacama Desert might be a radioresistantxerophile, a psychrophile, and an oligotroph. Polyextremophiles are well known for their ability to tolerate both high and low pH levels.
An organism that lives in microscopic spaces within rocks, such as pores between aggregate grains; these may also be called Endolith, a term that also includes organisms populating fissures, aquifers, and faults filled with groundwater in the deep subsurface.
An organism (usually bacteria) whose sole source of carbon is carbon dioxide and exergonic inorganic oxidation (chemolithotrophs) such as Nitrosomonas europaea; these organisms are capable of deriving energy from reduced mineral compounds like pyrites, and are active in geochemical cycling and the weathering of parent bedrock to form soil
(Also referred to as barophile). An organism that lives optimally at high pressures such as those deep in the ocean or underground; common in the deep terrestrial subsurface, as well as in oceanic trenches
An organism capable of survival, growth or reproduction at temperatures of -15 °C or lower for extended periods; common in cold soils, permafrost, polar ice, cold ocean water, and in or under alpine snowpack
An organism that can grow in extremely dry, desiccating conditions; this type is exemplified by the soil microbes of the Atacama Desert
Astrobiology is the field concerned with forming theories, such as panspermia, about the distribution, nature, and future of life in the universe. In it, microbial ecologists, astronomers, planetary scientists, geochemists, philosophers, and explorers cooperate constructively to guide the search for life on other planets. Astrobiologists are particularly interested in studying extremophiles, as many organisms of this type are capable of surviving in environments similar to those known to exist on other planets. For example, Mars may have regions in its deep subsurface permafrost that could harbor endolith communities. The subsurface water ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa may harbor life, especially at hypothesized hydrothermal vents at the ocean floor.
Recent research carried out on extremophiles in Japan involved a variety of bacteria including Escherichia coli and Paracoccus denitrificans being subject to conditions of extreme gravity. The bacteria were cultivated while being rotated in an ultracentrifuge at high speeds corresponding to 403,627 times "g" (the normal acceleration due to gravity). Paracoccus denitrificans was one of the bacteria which displayed not only survival but also robust cellular growth under these conditions of hyperacceleration which are usually found only in cosmic environments, such as on very massive stars or in the shock waves of supernovas. Analysis showed that the small size of prokaryotic cells is essential for successful growth under hypergravity. The research has implications on the feasibility of panspermia.
New sub-types of -philes are identified frequently and the sub-category list for extremophiles is always growing. For example, microbial life lives in the liquid asphalt lake, Pitch Lake. Research indicates that extremophiles inhabit the asphalt lake in populations ranging between 106 to 107 cells/gram. Likewise, until recently boron tolerance was unknown but a strong borophile was discovered in bacteria. With the recent isolation of Bacillus boroniphilus, borophiles came into discussion. Studying these borophiles may help illuminate the mechanisms of both boron toxicity and boron deficiency.
The thermoalkaliphilic catalase, which initiates the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water, was isolated from an organism, Thermus brockianus, found in Yellowstone National Park by Idaho National Laboratory researchers. The catalase operates over a temperature range from 30°C to over 94°C and a pH range from 6-10. This catalase is extremely stable compared to other catalases at high temperatures and pH. In a comparative study, the T. brockianus catalase exhibited a half life of 15 days at 80°C and pH 10 while a catalase derived from Aspergillus niger had a half life of 15 seconds under the same conditions. The catalase will have applications for removal of hydrogen peroxide in industrial processes such as pulp and paper bleaching, textile bleaching, food pasteurization, and surface decontamination of food packaging.
DNA modifying enzymes such as Taq DNA polymerase and some Bacillus enzymes used in clinical diagnostics and starch liquefaction are produced commercially by several biotechnology companies.
Over 65 prokaryotic species are known to be naturally competent for genetic transformation, the ability to transfer DNA from one cell to another cell followed by integration of the donor DNA into the recipient cell’s chromosome. Several extremophiles are able to carry out species-specific DNA transfer, as described below. However, it is not yet clear how common such a capability is among extremophiles.
The bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans is one of the most radioresistant organisms known. This bacterium can also survive cold, dehydration, vacuum and acid and is thus known as a polyextremophile. D. radiodurans is competent to perform genetic transformation. Recipient cells are able to repair DNA damage in donor transforming DNA that had been UV irradiated as efficiently as they repair cellular DNA when the cells themselves are irradiated. The extreme thermophilic bacterium Thermus thermophilus and other related Thermus species are also capable of genetic transformation.
Halobacterium volcanii, an extreme halophilic archaeon, is capable of natural genetic transformation. Cytoplasmic bridges are formed between cells that appear to be used for DNA transfer from one cell to another in either direction.
Sulfolobus solfataricus and Sulfolobus acidocaldarius are hyperthermophilic archaea. Exposure of these organisms to the DNA damaging agents UV irradiation, bleomycin or mitomycin C induces species-specific cellular aggregation. UV-induced cellular aggregation of S. acidocaldarius mediates chromosomal marker exchange with high frequency. Recombination rates exceed those of uninduced cultures by up to three orders of magnitude. Frols et al. and Ajon et al. hypothesized that cellular aggregation enhances species-specific DNA transfer between Sulfolobus cells in order to repair damaged DNA by means of homologous recombination. Van Wolferen et al. noted that this DNA exchange process may be crucial under DNA damaging conditions such as high temperatures. It has also been suggested that DNA transfer in Sulfolobus may be an early form of sexual interaction similar to the more well-studied bacterial transformation systems that involve species-specific DNA transfer leading to homologous recombinational repair of DNA damage (and see Transformation (genetics)).
Extracellular membrane vesicles (MVs) might be involved in DNA transfer between different hyperthermophilic archaeal species. It has been shown that both plasmids and viral genomes can be transferred via MVs. Notably, a horizontal plasmid transfer has been documented between hyperthermophilic Thermococcus and Methanocaldococcus species, respectively belonging to the orders Thermococcales and Methanococcales.
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