The most extreme life on the planet. Part one: life in volcanos.

Yellowstone National Park, with each ring of colour due to a different microorganism.

For all its beauty, Yellowstone National Park is a terrifying place. If it erupted tomorrow, most of America would be drowned in ash, and they wouldn’t see sunlight for weeks. Add extreme pressures, no nutrients and oxygen depletion to the searing heat in volcanic pools and you can understand why we used to think life here was impossible.

However, those amazing dashes of red, green and yellows sweeping across the volcanic pools are not from the rocks but from microbial life which aren’t just tolerating the scorching heat, but need it to survive.

Apart from being a liiitle bit painful, if I jumped in the pool and tried to survive, my cell membranes would crumble, my enzymes and proteins would melt and my DNA simply unravel and fall apart. How is it then, that at 115°C we still find archaea (single celled organisms which are as different from bacteria as we are)?

To survive and grow, these archaea have ultra strong membranes to stop the cell from melting. Weirdly, they then pump salt into their cells, acting as a clamp to hold the protein and DNA structures together, so they don’t fragment. For food the ingenious and complicatedly named Sulfolobus acidocaldarius actually sticks and clings onto sulphur crystals and uses the hydrogen sulphide to gather energy.

Nothing so far has been found above 120°C as it is thought any large molecules will simply fall apart. But, we have been wrong before.

As an aside to why you should care, the first ever life, which has given rise to you, me and everything living almost definitely lived in a deep sea volcano. Furthermore, the enzyme used to replicate DNA and sequence entire genomes was isolated from a bacteria living in a volcano.

If you are interested, I will be writing about various extreme life in the near future, including life in space, other planets, inside ice, rocks and salt and will be asking whether it is possible for an organism to live for 250 million years.

Could Predicting Evolution be our Best Chance at Saving Endangered Species?

Important and beautiful creatures are in danger of dying out as extinction rates rise to over 1000x greater than the historical average. Saving them needs to happen now but Tim Coulsen and co from university of Yale explain that predicting future evolution is what holds the key to understanding how to save our beautiful beasts.

The environment determines evolution. For example, the Grey Wolves in Yellowstone that live in an area of dense forest are more likely to have black fur than their counterparts that live in the open. Similarly, those that are surrounded by larger prey are more likely to be larger. Theoretically, if we account for all aspects that could influence evolutionary traits, we could use models to predict future changes.

Those that manage National Parks could then use the predictions to try and keep populations stable during the threat of climate change. Wider uses include estimating the likelihood of extinctions, and the environmental changes that would be needed in order to save endangered species.

Although Tim warns that accurate predictions are still not possible, using these models could be our best chance of saving endangered species.