Neither snow nor salt nor heat nor volcanic acid . . . Some organisms not only survive harsh conditions but also thrive in them. Their extreme hardiness can help scientists understand more about helping humans. Expanded knowledge about extreme survival skills leads to developing technologies for protection, diagnoses, and treatments.
Jaz L. Millar is a researcher in Earth and Environmental Science. She studies organisms that love extreme environments. Here are a few of Millar’s favorite “extremophiles” and a rundown of what makes them exceptional survivalists:
Dunaliella salina (algae)
Habitat: wide, flat, dried out expanses of land called salt pans
Challenge: extreme salt levels, ultraviolet (UV) radiation
Danger: Salty environments draw moisture from cells, often causing organisms to die. UV rays can damage or kill many life forms.
Superpower: D. salina flourishes in salty conditions and protects itself from UV damage.
Strategy: The algae carry high levels of glycerol (a liquid chemical) that offsets the salt by pulling water into its cells. The alga also holds high quantities of vitamin A to protect itself from UV damage.
Human Benefit: Scientists cultivate D. salina for dietary supplements and human skincare products. The microbe’s water retention and UV resistance “superpowers” are why this alga appears in makeup and face creams.
Thermus aquaticus (bacteria)
Habitat: thermal springs
Challenge: extremely high temperatures
Danger: Heat this high is known to kill most living organisms.
Superpower: T. aquaticus retains its molecular “shape” above 140°F (the temperature required to pull apart and copy DNA in order to study it).
Strategy: This bacterium produces an enzyme that helps it tolerate high temperatures.
Human Benefit: T. aquaticus’ tolerance of temperature extremes allowed scientists to copy strands of DNA. It was also used to develop a common type of COVID test.
Sulfolobus (single-celled organism)
Habitat: active volcanic springs
Challenge: extremely high heat and acidity
Danger: boiling to death, functional breakdown from acid
Superpower: ability to resist changes to chemical or physical structure
Strategy: Sulfolobus uses protein-enriched membranes to survive its harsh environment.
Human Benefit: Sulfolobus allows scientists to conduct studies in healthcare, genetics, and environmental research.
Habitat: beneath frozen lakes in Antarctica
Challenge: extremely low temperatures and low light
Danger: freezing, little light for photosynthesis
Superpower: absorbing limited light in deep water and thick ice
Strategy: Cyanobacteria use a purple pigment to absorb green light—the main type at ocean depths—efficiently.
Human Benefit: Researchers use cyanobacteria for dietary supplements, fertilizer, food production, food colorings, fuel, energy, and medicines.
From single-celled organisms to mammoth blue whales, God created an Earth teeming with life. Wherever scientists search—ocean depths, volcanic springs, solid ice—they find flourishing organisms. After all, God made His creation “very good.” By studying how created beings survive extremes, scientists are learning how to benefit humans.
Why? Studying the extremes of God’s creation reveals to us His majesty and magnitude and His perfect care for even the tiniest of details.
Pray: For thankful hearts for God’s goodness and for scientists who use their minds to explore the purpose in design for little-known creatures.