Never stand between a Scientist and their coffee…

There have only been a few times in my life that I have truly had any form of job-related jealousy. Whenever I watch a Vlogbrothers video (particularly Hank Green’s science related rambles) I get the urge to write or create more… and then I remember I have a thesis to finish. Every time I read an article in the Scientific American or New Scientist I mentally insert my name in the byline; and I’m not going to lie, I’ve walked past the traffic controllers on Broadway in Sydney a few times and thought “man that’s a sweet gig”.

But one time I’ve truly felt a deep seated “wow! You have the coolest job in the world” was listening to Dr Lynn Rothschild at the International Phycological Congress a few weeks ago.  At this conference, the main (plenary) talks were held just before the coffee break. In my experience, you generally want to do everything else apart from get in between a group of scientists and their coffee but at this talk… It was so fascinating and enthralling that it went for half an hour longer than it should have and no one noticed.

I think I first heard the term “extremophile” watching a David Attenborough documentary. I have this vivid memory of watching a researcher chip away at a glacier, looking for these tiny organisms that were known to thrive in the sub-sub-zero temperatures of the Antarctic. In her talk, Dr Rothschild defined an extreme environment as a physical or chemical extreme that tests an organism’s ability to use water and oxygen. Some examples of these sorts of environments are places like acidic pools of what is essentially battery acid in Yellowstone national park, the Dead Sea where salinity reaches 33.7% (the Ocean is about 3.5%), deep sea trenches where the pressure is enough to squish you like a bug, or closer to home, the extreme radiation caused by Uranium mines in the Paralana Springs in the Flinders Ranges.

Yellowstone Park acid pool
Yellowstone Park acid pool
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea

Organisms that thrive in these environments have re-engineered their entire metabolic systems to cope. For example, there’s a strain of algae called Methanopyrus kandleri that has evolved to survive in temperatures of up to 121oC (that’s 249oF) by channelling an unusually high level of unsaturated fatty acids and lipids into their cell walls as a kind of insulation1.

Methanopyrus Kandleri (Yale University)
Methanopyrus kandleri (Yale University)

So apart from being completely fascinated by life in what surely must be uninhabitable conditions, what’s the point of studying these guys?

Back to Dr Rothschild we go. Lynn works for the NASA Astrobiology Institute, among other things. In her plenary talk, she spoke about her work mapping the limits of life on Earth in order to search for life on other planets, or possibly habitable planets for us in the probable event we screw things up entirely here on Earth. Once we know what and how things survive here, we extrapolate to the universe.

See what I mean about job jealousy?

Currently in our Solar System, planets and moons like Mars, Europa, Titan and Enceladus have been the source of plenty of speculation. Even if there’s no life there currently, the fact that the conditions on the planet match some of those found on Earth is encouraging from a Synthetic Biology point of view. Colonising planets and moons, Dr Rothschild said, is an interesting problem given that in space travel, weight = money, severely limiting the amount of stuff you can take with you. The current billion dollar question is whether or not we can entice life to flourish on planets with nothing but the right conditions.

An ice geyser on Enceladus
An ice geyser on Enceladus (NASA)

The more I read up on Extremophiles, the more I am completely astonished at their resilience and their inexplicable survival. They seriously should not be a possibility at all. Listening to Dr Rothschild speak about the implications of their very existence and the options it opens for us just blew my mind.

Then again, perhaps the topic was just a perfect combination of Science and Sci-fi geekery for my brain. You can be the judge.


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