Extreme organisms that are not only important,
they may change science.
The nature of science is simple, to ask questions about the world around us and to search for answers to them. People, being inquisitive in nature, seek out these answers and discover that what they find can be either simple or rather complex. So, even more questions get asked. Eventually, new explanations are found and changes are made to the science. Sometimes these changes are a natural fit and sometimes they are difficult to accept because the old way was so ingrained in our brains. For me, one of these changes was the kingdoms of life. I had always learned in grade school that there are five kingdoms of life: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, and Monera. Early in my college career, I was baffled to learn that scientists were considering adding a sixth kingdom (Now a possible 7th). Until the 20th century, scientists had classified everything as either a plant or an animal, a concept that just seems stupid today. The exclusion of this sixth kingdom, known as Archaea, may seem silly in the next 100 years.
What are Archaea do you ask? They were discovered in the late 1970’s and were given the name Archaebacteria because they are similar in structure to bacteria in that they both are prokaryotic (no defined nucleus or organelles) but there genetics are more complex. In fact, there are no creatures on earth that are quite like Archaea. Scientists refer to them as extremophiles because they live in some of the most extreme conditions on earth where nothing else can live. They have been found living in hot springs and underwater vents at temperatures near 100⁰ C, in highly saline waters like the Dead Sea, highly acidic waters, and highly alkaline waters. They are prevalent in the digestive tracts of humans and animals, and even found within petroleum deposits deep underground.
Further study has found that these creatures are not just found in extreme environments, but in normal conditions as well including soil, rock, ocean, and marshes. In fact, they might be one of the most abundant organisms on earth. They play a huge part in the nitrogen cycle, especially in the oceans. This is due to their ability to metabolize ammonia. Some species can breakdown urea to use as a fuel source; others can utilize sulfur, and even use sunlight to make their own food.
What is their secret? That is a question that is still being asked because Archaea are difficult to culture in the laboratory. Signs point to the structure of their membranes and proteins that are highly stable. Once a feasible method to study these creatures is created, findings might be beneficial to us and could lead to an abundance of new discoveries. It is known that Archaea are resistant to all known antibiotics and scientists think that new ones could be discovered with further study. Since they are also resilient creatures, their genome may provide help in finding treatment for many other diseases as well. While many scientists are trying to study the secrets of Archaea, some are finding ways to put them to good use. Ammonia metabolizing Archaea have proven beneficial in sewage treatment by increasing removal of ammonia and decreasing amounts of sludge. They seem to also play a role in the biodegradation of oil and may have taken a lead role in cleaning up the BP spill in the Gulf Coast. Some species can metabolize metal ions and have been used in cleaning up toxic and contaminated sites. A vast reduction of a toxic waste spill off the coast of Palos Verdes California is credited to Archaea by many people. There are also signs that Archaea may be a useful source in biogas production.
Microbes have a bad reputation, because people are over obsessed with being germ free. Of all the microbes that exist, less than 0.5% have been found to be pathogenic. Many of the others are beneficial to us and even more don’t have an effect on us. They just use us for living conditions in which they can thrive. Archaea are one such microbe that is beneficial to life on earth. Not only are they responsible for reorganizing the kingdoms of life, they are changing science. There could be some exiting discoveries to come by studying these fascinating creatures.
By Daniel Steiger
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