Extremophiles in Astrobiology: PerArdua ad Astra

Jonathan D Trent


As we consider the possibilities of finding life on other planets, it behooves us to evaluate what we know about the limits for life on planet Earth. In our continued exploration of Earth, we are finding microbes in a variety of unexpected habitats. In geothermal hot springs, we have discovered organisms thriving at temperatures near the boiling point of water and at pH values down to 0.5; in the deepest parts of the oceans, those that grow optimally at pressures above 1000 bars and die at pressures below 500 bars; and at the poles, those that grow below the freezing point of water and die at temperatures above 10°C. All of these organisms are living proof that the biochemical “machinery” of life can be adapted to conditions that, from our anthropocentric perspective, appear to be extreme.

By studying the molecular adaptations of extremophiles, we begin to identify the critical cellular components that expand the envelope for life. As an example, I will discuss what we have learned about the role of the proteins we call “heat shock proteins” in pushing the upper temperature limit of life and how our studies have provided a new perspective on the function of these proteins.

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