This lesson will examine the relationship found between an organism and heat or, the life of a thermophile. It will give examples and show why scientists are so interested in this type of organism.
What Is a Thermophile?
They like it hot and steamy. No, this isn’t the first line in a bad romance novel, but it is a story of love. It’s a story about thermophiles, or organisms that love the heat. In fact, their name even means ‘heat lover.’ They thrive in temperatures ranging from 140 degrees F to 226 degrees F (that’s 60 – 108 degrees C).
Thermophiles are a type of extremophile, or organism that loves extremes. Most thermophiles belong to the Archaea Domain, which was not even discovered until the 1970s. Other members of the Archaea Domain include other extremophiles like halophiles, which love salt, and acidophiles, which love acid. You may have noticed by now that the suffix phile means ‘love.’Because thermophiles like hot temperatures, they are found in some of the most hostile environments on Earth.
For example, they can survive in hot springs or even in hydrothermal vents found under the ocean. Thermophiles survive on gases, minerals, and metals that can be found in these extreme environments.Scientists have found a thermophile, Methanopyrus kandleri, that can survive in temperatures in excess of 250 degrees F. It currently holds the record for hottest thermophile, although scientists have only begun to scratch the surface in thermophile diversity, so who knows what the record holder will be in a few years.
Enzymes are found in living organisms, and they help reactions take place in our bodies. Most enzymes cannot function at high temperatures – that’s why you die if you get too hot! But the enzymes found in thermophiles can.
As a result, scientists are interested in studying these enzymes for various uses. For example, washing detergents need to function at high temperatures, and scientists are investigating the use of thermophile enzymes in detergents. So the next time your ketchup-stained shirt comes out of the washer clean, thank a thermophile.Another thermophile, Thermus aquaticus, found in the hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, has been used in the polymerase chain reaction process, or PCR, which uses heating and cooling to make billions of copies of a DNA section. Because thermophile enzymes still work at high temperatures, they are an integral part of the process. Scientists use PCR to make copies of DNA in order to study genetics, cancer, and vaccines. PCR can even help solve crimes! When detectives find hairs or skin cells at a crime scene, they use PCR to make more copies of the DNA in order to try and find a match.
Life on Other Planets
When life on earth began over 3.5 billion years ago, Earth looked much different than it does today. It was covered with volcanoes and hot springs – places where thermophiles thrive. Scientists believe that the first life on earth may have been a thermophile. Astrobiologists, or scientists who study what life would be like on other planets, believe that the first discovery of life on another planet will likely be a thermophile.
We have many reasons to be a thermophile-phile or lover of thermophiles! Most thermophiles belong to the recently discovered Archaea Domain and are able to survive and thrive where other organisms would perish.
Scientists are able to use thermophile enzymes to make better detergents and to copy DNA. The latter is used for research in genetics and vaccines as well as by crime fighters. Who knew that these heat lovers would come in so handy!