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Life occupies a multi-dimensional niche space, but in the last few decades we have discovered that this envelope for life far exceeds what seemed possible. Boiling acid springs, pH 12 lakes, saturated salt and the high pressure depths of the ocean are now known to harbor a variety of life forms. Extremophiles - organisms that live at the boundaries of the physical and chemical limits for life - have enriched our understanding of life on earth, and the potential for life elsewhere. It can be argued that the entire molecular biology revolution has been based on "biomining" the genome of a thermophilic bacterium from Yellowstone, /Thermus aquaticus,/ to yield Taq polymerase. The biotech industry is rife with further examples of the utility of enzymes from extremophiles, and their use as model systems in basic research. Some adaptations to life in extreme environments are biochemically straightforward or even convergent, suggesting relative ease in evolution. I will critically examine what it means to be an extremophile, and discuss the implications for evolution, biotechnology, and possibly life on other planets in our solar system where extreme conditions exist.
Lynn J. Rothschild is a Research Scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. Dr. Rothschild received her undergraduate degree in biology from Yale University. In 1985 she received a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from Brown University in which she investigated evolutionary relationships in algal chloroplasts using ribulose -1,5-biphosphatecarboxylase as a marker. Postdoctoral research experience included work on the molecular evolution of the ribosomal RNA in yeast (Brown University), and measurements of carbon fixation rates in nature. Rothschild's current research focuses on the evolution and physiological ecology of protists. She has investigated carbon metabolism and DNA synthesis in microbial mats in Baja California, Yellowstone National Park, Bolivia and thermal areas in New Zealand. The goal of her research is to predict the effect of global change variables, particularly carbon dioxide pressure and UV radiation, on ecosystem functioning. Dr. Rothshild recently reported the first observation of excision repair occurring in microorganisms exposed to high UV flux.
Rothschild, LJ. 2010. A powerful toolkit for synthetic biology: Over 3.8 billion years of evolution. Bioessays 32:304-13.