Extremophiles: why examine them? What can they train us in regards to the seek for life past Earth?

Universe Today has conducted some incredible research into a variety of scientific areas, including impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, comets, planetary atmospheres, planetary geophysics, cosmochemistry, meteorites and radio astronomy, and how these disciplines can help scientists and the public gain better insight in the search for life outside Earth. Here we will talk to Dr. Ivan Paulino-Lima, a senior research scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and co-founder and chief science officer of Infinite Elements Inc., will talk about the immersive field of extremophiles and also talk about why scientists study extremophiles, the benefits and challenges Search for life beyond Earth and suggested routes for prospective students. So why is it so important to study extremophiles?

“The study of extremophiles represents the edge of human knowledge regarding the environmental limits within which life forms can live, resist, or maintain their integrity and life potential,” says Dr. Paulino-Lima told Universe Today. “For example, exploration of Yellowstone hot springs led to the discovery of Taq DNA polymerase from Thermus aquaticus, which was subsequently used to develop the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. Just like thermophiles, which represent organisms that thrive in hot temperatures, an increasing diversity of microorganisms and ecosystems have been found in cold temperatures, extremes of pH, pressure, salinity, radiation, desiccation and toxic substances.”

The study of extremophiles can be summarized as “living in extreme environments,” that is, environments that are inhospitable to most living things on Earth, including humans, plants, and animals. Extremophiles have been found to not only survive but thrive in Earth's most unlikely environments, including hydrothermal vents, alkaline lakes, acid mine drainage, cosmic rays, sunlight, Mariana Trench, arid environments such as the McMurdo Dry Valley and the Atacama Desert, Gold mines and even under ice shelves in Antarctica.

In addition to those from Dr. In environments called Paulino-Lima, there are also other types of extremophiles that can survive without oxygen, large amounts of carbon dioxide, dissolved heavy metals and sulfur. What are the benefits and challenges of studying extremophiles given the wide range of locations?

“Studying extremophiles is often challenging because their nature contradicts our traditional concepts,” says Dr. Paulino-Lima told Universe Today. “Some anaerobic microorganisms are extremely sensitive to oxygen and require anaerobic chambers and special techniques for their cultivation and routine maintenance. As for benefits, some types of extremophiles are very resistant to desiccation and can be stored in a dry state for many years. Likewise, thermophiles can be preserved at room temperature for long periods of time because their normal metabolic activity occurs at a much higher temperature.”

The discovery of life in such extreme environments on Earth has helped change the conversation about where scientists might find life beyond Earth, including Venus, Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus and even exoplanets. Of these worlds, Europa and Enceladus have received much attention in recent decades due to the existence of internal oceans of liquid water within these small moons. It is currently hypothesized that hydrothermal vents may exist at the bottom of these oceans, potentially providing nutrients for life, just like they do here on Earth. NASA's Europa Clipper mission is currently scheduled to launch to Europa in October this year and reach Jupiter in 2030, with the goal of determining the habitability potential of Europa and its inner ocean. So what can extremophiles teach us about the search for life beyond Earth?

“Studying extremophiles allows us to establish empirical and theoretical limits to life on Earth,” says Dr. Paulino-Lima told Universe Today. “These boundaries allow us to limit the search for life outside Earth and limit the habitats where Earth-like life may currently live or may have inhabited sometime in the past. In our search for extraterrestrial life, it is entirely possible that we will encounter even more exotic possibilities, collectively referred to as “alternative biochemistry.” For example, a different type of metabolism for carbon-based life has been proposed for Titan, one of Saturn's moons. However, these possibilities remain theoretical or speculative and have yet to be proven in the laboratory. The search for life beyond Earth is necessarily guided by in-depth knowledge, but with an open mind. Extremophiles represent the latest in our knowledge of the limits of Earth-like life.”

Aside from their astrobiological effects, extremophiles also offer opportunities for use in a variety of industries, including biotechnology, medicine, food processing and clothing. In biotechnology, extremophiles, which live in extremes of heat, cold, salinity and methane, can be used to copy DNA, produce biofuels and biodegrade. For medical science, extremophiles living in extreme drought, radiation, acid and vacuum can be used for DNA transfer, which is a crucial practice in repairing DNA damage that can arise from a variety of reasons. So, given their countless astrobiological and industrial applications, what are some of the most exciting aspects of extremophiles that Dr. Paulino-Lima has studied throughout his career?

“One of the most exciting aspects of extremophiles that I have studied in my career is the fact that they can withstand the ultimate limit of tolerance – space,” says Dr. Paulino-Lima told Universe Today. “These include vacuum, extreme temperatures, bursts of radiation from the solar wind, cosmic rays, supernovae, all together and over a long period of time.” For me, it is impossible to be aware of these facts and not question whether we are alone in the universe . Detection of a single spore anywhere in the solar system that rules out an Earth origin, or detection of exoplanet biosignatures or even complex radio signals with sophisticated patterns originating from other solar systems, will lead us into a new era of self-awareness and exploration, which will have a profound impact on the culture and future of our society.”

Among the most well-known extremophiles are tardigrades, also known as water bears, which are known for their extreme resilience in almost any environment, including space. These microscopic creatures can suspend their metabolism when exposed to extreme environmental stress, only to revive later without adverse health effects. They have been observed to survive in all sorts of conditions including starvation, freezing, cooking, extreme heat and vacuum.

Image of a tardigrade, a microscopic species and one of the best-known extremophiles that has been observed to survive some of the most extreme environments, including outer space. (Source: Katexic Publications, unchanged, CC2.0)

In addition to the variety of extremophile types and the locations in which they occur, the study of extremophiles is also carried out by a variety of scientific disciplines, including microbiologists and astrobiologists, who conduct field studies and collect samples to be examined and analyzed in domestic laboratories. This allows scientists to learn about the complex processes that allow extremophiles to survive in such harsh environments, right down to the organisms' genetic material. In addition to laboratory experiments and testing, scientists studying extremophiles collaborate with other disciplines, including organic geochemistry, biochemistry, geology, and stratigraphy, to name a few. What advice does Dr. Paulino-Lima for prospective students who want to devote themselves to the study of extremophiles?

“Our society is based on all kinds of information,” says Dr. Paulino-Lima told Universe Today. “The trick is to choose what can be converted into knowledge and what can lead to a path. Be wise to separate knowledge from mere information. Attend conferences, organize meetings, organize your time and socialize. The best opportunities may be the ones you don't think about or never imagined. My career would never be the same without all the answers and feedback that became the cornerstones of my professional development. I would never have known if I hadn't asked. I will forever be grateful to everyone who played a role and helped shape my career.”

As already mentioned, research into extremophiles is based on collaboration with other researchers and scientific disciplines. For example, Dr. Paulino-Lima and a member of his PhD committee, Dr. Lynn Rothschild (who was previously one of his main references for publications), worked together on a variety of projects at the NASA Ames Research Center, including a satellite with biological experiments and a database to carry out a method for remotely identifying extraterrestrial life. In addition, he has also worked with Dr. Jesica Urbina, currently CEO of Infinite Elements Inc., collaborated on an innovative research project.

Extremophile research is a multidisciplinary and collaborative effort that includes field work and laboratory experiments in the hope of further discovering where and how we can find life, both on Earth and beyond. Through these efforts, scientists are working to answer some of the most difficult questions in human history, including: How did we get here and are we alone? As the study of extremophiles continues to grow and develop with new methods and discoveries, there is no doubt that the number of people involved in this incredible and unique field of research will also grow and develop.

“Many people may feel discouraged from pursuing a career in life sciences because they are not attracted to the tedious routine of laboratory experiments,” says Dr. Paulino-Lima told Universe Today. “I imagine this is particularly true for research into extremophiles. However, this is only one aspect of the scientific method. A big part is reading and keeping up to date with the latest developments in a particular field. In an era where all biological information is digitized, developing programming skills is essential for anyone who wants to study extremophiles from a bioinformatics perspective. For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, this is a huge area full of exciting opportunities. Let your knowledge guide your imagination toward a better, more sustainable future.”

How will extremophiles help us better understand our place in the universe in the years and decades to come? Only time will tell, and that's why we do science!

As always, keep up the science and keep looking up!

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