The challenge of the extreme

The study of extreme organisms offers plenty of challenges to biologists as we struggle to understand the mechanisms by which they manage to survive, and even flourish, under conditions that would be fatal to most other organisms. As well as its intrinsic fascination, extreme biology has yielded plenty of practical outcomes and potential applications (see Chapters 3-6). Enzymes isolated from extreme organisms are used in processes ranging from laundry to DNA fingerprinting. Antifreezes from polar fish, and other cold-tolerant organisms, may improve our ability to cryopreserve biological materials and produce better frozen food, aid the storage of organs and tissues for transplantation, and yield smoother, creamier ice cream. Understanding the mechanisms of anhydrobiosis may also improve our ability to store biological materials. Crop plants may be grown in a wider range of environments if their ability to survive desiccation and temperature stress can be improved.

By understanding how life survives at the extremes, we may gain more understanding of how organisms in general survive and function in their environments, how life evolves and how organisms interact to form functioning ecological communities. We may also improve our understanding of the nature and origin of life and develop techniques for our search for life elsewhere in the universe.

Extreme biologists have tended to focus their attention on extremo-philes (especially archaea and bacteria) that use capacity adaptation, in the form of enzymes, membranes and other components that withstand the extreme conditions. Cryptobiotic organisms, which provide an extreme example of resistance adaptation, have received much less attention and yet this phenomenon challenges our understanding of the nature of life itself. New discoveries of extreme organisms and their survival abilities and mechanisms are being reported almost daily. However, much remains that challenges our understanding and no doubt many surprises still await us.

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