Extremophiles in lava tunnels

The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) is a scientific research programme that aims to study the quantities, movements, forms and origins of carbon in the Earth's interior, including its interactions with water, rocks and life. One aspect of this research is the study of extremophiles, which are organisms capable of surviving in extreme environments, such as high temperatures, pressures or acidity.

One place where extremophiles have been studied is in lava tunnels, formed by the cooling and solidification of lava flows. These tunnels can provide extreme environments similar to those found on other planets or moons in our solar system, and can therefore serve as models for astrobiology research.

DCO researchers have explored lava tunnels around the world, including Hawaii, Iceland and the Galapagos Islands, to study the extremophiles that inhabit these environments. By collecting samples of these organisms and studying their genetics, physiology and behaviour, researchers can learn more about the mechanisms that enable them to survive and thrive in such harsh conditions.

The study of extremophiles in lava tunnels also has implications for understanding the origins and evolution of life on Earth and the potential for life elsewhere in the universe. The DCO's research into extremophiles and other aspects of deep carbon is ongoing and continues to expand our knowledge of the Earth and the universe.

Extremophiles can take many different forms and have a wide range of adaptations that enable them to survive in extreme environments. Some extremophiles found in lava tunnels are bacteria, archaea and fungi.

Some of these extremophiles have adapted to survive in conditions of extreme heat and drought. For example, some bacteria can form heat-resistant spores that enable them to survive temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius. Other bacteria and fungi can form protective coatings around their cells to help them retain moisture and survive in dry environments.

Others have adapted to survive in conditions of low light and limited nutrients. Some bacteria and fungi have developed the ability to use chemical energy sources, such as hydrogen sulphide or iron, as a source of energy instead of sunlight. Others can survive on a diet of rock minerals, such as iron and sulphur, which they break down using specialised enzymes.

Overall, the specific characteristics and appearance of extremophiles in lava tunnels can vary considerably depending on the species and the environment in which they live. Some may be visible to the naked eye, while others may require specialised tools and techniques, such as microscopy or DNA sequencing, to detect and study.

They are not considered a significant danger to humans, but scientists who come into direct contact with them should take precautions.

"Volcanic environments are home to original forms of life that were still unknown some thirty years ago. Their discovery has turned the phylogenetic tree upside down, imposing a third domain of life. We present the main extremophiles present in volcanic environments before looking at extremophiles that are totally independent of volcanism. In many cases, we will see that mankind has been quick to use these extremophiles for practical purposes. Finally, the discovery and study of extremophiles has led us to take a fresh look at theories about the appearance of life on Earth, its maintenance during difficult epochs, and its possible existence elsewhere in the solar system."

Olivier Dequincey


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