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P. fumarii live in deep ocean thermal vents such as this "black smoker" in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Photo: NOAA
P. fumarii live in deep ocean thermal vents such as this "black smoker" in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Photo: NOAA

Natural Selections: Extreme bacteria

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Some bacteria like it hot, geyser hot, and some like it cold, refrigerator cold. Dr. Curt Stager and Martha Foley look at bacteria that thrive in extreme environments.

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Extreme bacteria live in unusual places. These extremophiles appreciate very high or low temperatures and chemicals conditions where very few organisms can live. Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College said that when he took a trip to East Africa, he saw very salty, alkaline lakes there that are very concentrated and caustic.

Some of these lakes were bright in red in color as a result of the photosynthetic bacteria that live in them. “If I had gone in there, it would have dissolved me basically. So it’s hard to imagine that something could live in a place like that,” said Stager.

Bacteria also live in refrigerators despite the cold. These are called cryophiles, and they thrive at freezing temperatures. According to Stager, they will die of heat prostration if it approaches room temperature. Stager said, “They’re actually not that uncommon if you look at the planet as a whole. They’re common in deep sea sediments. It’s really cold down there because water from the North and South Poles gets really, really cold and sinks and then flows along the bottom of the ocean. Since most of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean, they’re pretty much everywhere over the surface of the earth.”

Thermophiles are bacteria that live in extremely hot places such as volcanic and hot spring areas, or boiling mud pots in Iceland. Some of these will die of cold if they find themselves in temperatures below 90 degrees centigrade, which is close to the boiling point.

These bacteria all have wildly different adaptations for surviving in their extreme conditions. “It’s an area of active research, and there’s still a lot to be found, and what’s going to be found will have to be done at the molecular level, so it’ll be pretty high-tech research,” said Stager, who explained that findings might have industrial significance.

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