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No. 29: Sep-Oct 1993

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Life beyond 100c

Bacteria can survive and multiply in hot springs near and slightly above 100C -- the boiling point of water at atmospheric pressure. Few scientists have contemplated the possibility of life forms prospering at temperatures well beyond 100. Recently, however, the discovery of many new and frequently bizarre organisms clustered around deep-sea vents has forced a reexamination of high-temperature life. It seems that bacteria actually flourish in the 350C water streams from the deep-sea vents. In the lab, these same bacteria multiply rapidly in water at 250C kept liquid by pressures of 265 atmospheres of pressure. What a surprise! Quoting a concluding sentence from this article:

"This greatly increases the number of environments and conditions both on Earth and elsewhere in the Universe where life can exist."

(Baross, John A., and Deming, Jody W.; "Growth of 'Black Smoker' Bacteria at Temperatures of at Least 250C," Nature, 303:423, 1983.)

Comment. Ignoring for the moment the extraterrestrial possibilities, the earth is riddled like a Swiss cheese with hot, fluid environments, which we may now consider potential abodes of life. Subterranean life represents a new biological frontier. Who knows what kinds of organisms have developed to feed upon the planet's heat? Could they have con-tributed to our supplies of petroleum and natural gas?

From Science Frontiers #29, SEP-OCT 1983. 1983-2000 William R. Corliss