Extremophiles. Creatures that are smaller than the eye can see, to up to 6 feet long, surviving in conditions no human could last a day in, these creatures could mean a new hope for humanity’s future.
If you are anything like me, you probably don’t know what an extremophile is. An extremophile is an organism that has adapted to life in extreme temperature, pressure, or chemical concentration environments[₁]. Some extremophiles you may have heard of include tubeworms, underwater creatures that live in water filled with chemicals reaching boiling temperatures, or the “water bear”, a creature which lives on wet lichens and mosses that can survive drying out, freezing, boiling and the open vacuum of space[₂], or even the elusive “sea monkey”. Here is an interactive look at where extremophiles can be found. But the real point of this blog post is what all this means for humans.
Extremophiles and Industry
Extremophiles have become a sensation to industry and technology as scientists work to find the ways these extreme organisms are able to survive where they do and how. Scientists have discovered that one of the ways extremophiles are able to survive where they do is by producing enzymes. Enzymes are proteins produced by all living organisms[₃], these enzymes have turned out to hold many lucrative opportunities for industry thus far. One enzyme currently being researched is a protein produced by the extremophile Thermus brockianus which is a very tiny organism found in a geyser in Yellowstone National Park (located in Wyoming, U.S.A.). The enzymes produced have been found to degrade the chemical compound, hydrogen peroxide, which can be used to treat the waste of bleaching. The reason however that this enzyme in particular is so appealing however is that it is from an extremophile.
This extremophile has the special property of being able to withstand boiling hot temperatures and high ph contents, both very important in the treatment of bleaching and is much cheaper than other treatment methods. This only becomes more crucial when you go through as many hydrogen peroxide canisters as shown in the picture to the left. This is not the only advancement in this field however, there are many more. Some of these include the Lake Vostok, Antarctica discoveries that have led to cold adapted enzymes used to reduce energy costs and waste production or the discovery of biodegradable biopolymers that can be used to create biodegradable plastic[⁵] on a massive scale or even the Taq DNA Polymerase[₆], which can be used to duplicate specific DNA segments. All of these advancements are only possible through the research on extremophiles.
Extremophiles and AstroBiology
Astrobiology is a branch of biology that investigates the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Extremophiles have become a very important part of astrobiology, since they were first discovered and as mentioned in the opening paragraph they could mean a new hope for humanity. In the youtube video below watch for the connections between extremophiles and astrobiology.
As the Ted-Ed video above has shown, extremophiles have opened up a whole new world of places life could be found on alien worlds. One of these places being Saturn’s moon “Titan”, because of the discovery of cold adaptive organisms such as the ones in Lake Vostok, Antarctica[⁵] or the “Water Bears” we know that the freezing conditions on “Titan” would not necessarily mean that there is no possibility of life. Another way that extremophiles given a new hope to the search for a new life in space is through the formally known tardigrades. The tardigrades were taken into a low-earth orbit by the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) FOTON-M3 spaceship and were exposed to the open vacuum of space. Surprisingly the majority of the tardigrades survived the vacuum and the accompanying cosmic rays. Some of the tardigrades even survived the deathly solar UV radiation found in space which can reach levels up to 1000 times that of earth, and as the Cell Press (the scientific journal that published the experiment) stated, “[the tardigrades] Could reproduce fine after their trip.”[⁷] This means that certain organisms have the ability to survive a trip through the openness of space, further advancing the idea that life could be found beyond earth.
The search for extremophiles does not come cheap and neither does isolating the enzymes in them that are important to scientific research. Most extremophiles are found in very dangerous and/or secluded places, this makes it very expensive to find them, and once they are found expenses continue to arise as scientists must now try to isolate enzymes in the organism and find applications for them[₈]. The benefits greatly outway the cost however. As you can see in the graph to the left, there are so many possible applications for extremophiles and their enzymes that the money spent on research will more than likely be made back. It will also be very beneficial to medical and scientific research, such as, the tardigrades, that as mentioned before, took a trip through space and came back still able to reproduce. Well one of the theories as of how they did this is that the animals were able to repair the DNA damage caused by the vacuum of space. Figuring how the tardigrades were able to do this would be greatly beneficial to the improvement and development of radiation therapy for cancer[₉]. It is because of reasons like those that the research being done on extremophiles is so imperative to the future of humans.
Where To Go From Here
The story of how extremophiles have helped humans is still incomplete and I foresee that as the years go on their role in the technological advancements of our time will be crucial and will continue to be so until the end of time. Extremophiles will always be around as long as there are dangerous and inhospitable conditions in the universe, so that means that there will always be more to find and research, because of this I believe that the only thing to do is continue the search for extremophiles and their connections to medicine, astrobiology and life itself.
What Can I Do?
Just spreading the word of scientific studies and fields like this one, may help to make them more public and popular topics so that maybe they may get more funding and support from the government or charitable organizations. If you enjoy topics such as these you could even consider volunteering at the Ontario Science Centre to help get kids interested in science and technology. Here is how to volunteer.
Carry On The Conversation
I would love to hear about what you thought about this post and how I can improve it. I would also like to hear about any science stories you have heard about recently (maybe a link if possible).
Well that is it for this blog, but if you enjoyed this topic consider reading more…
More on extremophiles:
More on extremophile applications:
₁ American Psychological Association,. ‘Extremophiles’. The American Heritage Science Dictionary 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
₂ Staff, Space.com. ‘Creature Survives Naked In Space’. Space.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
₃ Wentz, Chris. ‘Enzyme From Extremophile Holds Promise For Industrial Applications’. Northwest Science & Technology 2005: Single page. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
⁴ Wentz, Chris. ‘Enzyme From Extremophile Holds Promise For Industrial Applications’. Northwest Science & Technology 2005: Single page. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
⁵ Clark, Clay. ‘Novel Industrial Applications From Salt Loving Extremophiles’. Biochem Blogs 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
⁶ Wentz, Chris. ‘Enzyme From Extremophile Holds Promise For Industrial Applications’. Northwest Science & Technology 2005: Single page. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
⁷ Staff, Space.com. ‘Creature Survives Naked In Space’. Space.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
₈ Wentz, Chris. ‘Enzyme From Extremophile Holds Promise For Industrial Applications’. Northwest Science & Technology 2005: Single page. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
₉ Staff, Space.com. ‘Creature Survives Naked In Space’. Space.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.