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Extreme Meeting
Notes from the 2004 International Conference on Extremophiles

By Kate Ruder

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This small undersea microbe, N. equitans, was a hot topic at the meeting.
Last week the relatively small group of scientists from around the world who study microbes that live in unusually harsh environments got together to talk shop about extremophiles.

Meeting on the beautiful (but not very extreme) Eastern Shore of Maryland, they talked about extremophile proteins and how they might be used to make new products for biotechnology. There was also a vibe of discovery and curiosity about the basic biology of these weird but wonderful microbes, which is characteristic of people who work in this field.

These are the dreamers who stay up late wondering whether there are microbes living in volcanoes or in the middle of a glacier in Greenland—and then go exploring to find out. They study organisms that live in harsh conditions such as high and low temperatures, high pressure, and high salt.

This was the fifth and largest meeting of the group known as the International Conference on Extremophiles.

Rick Cavicchioli of The University of New South Whales in Sydney, Australia, discussed his latest research on proteins from a microbe that lives at the bottom of a lake in Antarctica where there is no oxygen and the average temperature is a brutal 1 degree Celsius (33 degrees Fahrenheit).

Using its genome sequence, Cavicchioli and his colleagues have identified more than 40 genes that help this microbe grow at cold temperatures. Microbes’ ability to grow in such cold conditions has fueled interest in biotechnology, and the search for life on other planets such as frozen water on Mars and Europa.

One of the keynote speeches was given by a pioneer in the field Karl Stetter—a German researcher with a knack for stories about microbes and beer and travels to far-flung regions of the Earth. (See: A Talk with Microbe Hunter Karl Stetter)

He propelled the field forward by creating a laboratory in Germany where these microbes could be kept alive under the extreme conditions they prefer such as boiling water. And he has shipped these microbes to extremophile researchers in laboratories throughout the world.

A tiny undersea microbe that has generated buzz since it was discovered two years ago in thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean near Iceland was a hit at this year's gathering, partly because it has now been found in oceans all over the world. Nanoarchaeum equitans is something of an extreme parasite and lives on top of another microbe that helps it survive.

Scientists at the biotechnology company Diversa have sequenced the genome of this organism, which at 400,000 letters of genetic code has one of the smallest genomes ever discovered. Interest in its small genome is high because it could be used as a basis to make novel microbes that could someday make drugs or clean up the environment.

Money was also on the agenda. Scientists continue to look for ways that proteins from extremophiles can be used to speed up industrial processes—from making corn syrup and laundry detergent to making better bread. One scientist referred to the bottleneck between basic research on extremophiles and industrial applications as “the valley of death.”

No doubt some are after the next Taq Polymerase—a protein that works at high temperatures and has become the basis of a $300 million biotechnology industry. It was isolated from an organism found living in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park.

That kind of real-world application is why biotechnology companies such as Diversa, Novozymes, and Genencor were at the meeting, as well as academic scientists from dozens of countries including Russia, Germany, and Japan.

The meeting of roughly 350 scientists was held at the new Hyatt Resort on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

“It’s luxurious here, which is a bonus,” said Reinhard Rachel of the University of Regensburg, Germany, who was on the first trip he’d taken all year. “Also, we can’t get away from one another, which is good.”

“The meeting shows that the field of extremophiles can really hold together as a group,” said Frank Robb of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, who helped organize the meeting.

What is an extremophile?

An organism that lives in an extreme environment such as ice in Antarctica, Chilean deserts, and thermal vents deep in the ocean. Most extremophiles are microorganisms, but a few species of plants and animals, including certain worms and snails, endure extremely harsh conditions.

Quick Hit of Types of Extremophiles:

  • Acidophile: An organism that likes to grow at or below ph3
  • Halophile: An organism that loves salty conditions
  • Hyperthermophile: Prefers to grow at 80 degrees Celsius or higher
  • Oligotroph: An organisms that grows with limited nutrients
  • Psychrophile: Prefers to grow at 15 degrees Celsius or lower
  • Toxitolerant: An organism able to withstand high levels of damaging agents. For example, a nuclear reactor.

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