Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Life Science: Session 1

Extremophiles

Thermal vent

One of the great thrills of microbiology is studying organisms that thrive in some of the world’s most inhospitable environments. These organisms are known as extremophiles (“phile” means “loving”). They live in extreme environments and are able to exploit resources that are unusable, and many times toxic, to other organisms.

The vocabulary of extremophiles describes the extremophiles themselves. It’s actually very straightforward and based on interchangeable prefixes and suffixes:


Acido- Acidic, low pH conditions
Alkali- Alkaline, high pH conditions
Halo- High salt conditions
Psychro- Cold temperature
Thermo- Hot temperature
-phile “loving”

 

There is even a distinction made for microbes found in the most extreme environments. For example, hyperthermophiles live in environments hotter than 80ÂșC (“hyper” means “above”). There are even organisms that are able to exist in acidic hot springs, making them acidothermophilic.

How are extremophiles useful to people?

While extremophiles are intrinsically interesting because they can inhabit otherwise barren niches, there are also benefits to humans. For instance, the key enzymes used by molecular biologists to examine DNA sequences were isolated from thermophilic bacteria. These enzymes are naturally able to withstand the high temperatures necessary for scientists to manipulate DNA. There are also extremophile enzymes that are well suited for industrial applications that are carried out at elevated temperatures or in acidic or alkaline conditions. Extremophiles are constantly under examination by researchers for additional agents that could facilitate academic, industrial, and even medical projects.

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