Sciency Words: Extremophiles

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Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Sci-Fi Ideas celebrating the rich and colorful world of science and science-related vocabulary. For today’s special Alien August edition of Sciency Words, we turn our attention to the term:

EXTREMOPHILES

I don’t know about you, but I’d have a tough time surviving on Mars. It’s way too cold, there’s too much radiation, and nowhere near enough water or oxygen. For a long time scientists thought no organism, no matter how strange or exotic, could survive in such a hostile environment. Then came the extremophiles.

In the mid-1960’s, a field biologist by the name of Thomas Brock was conducting research in Yellowstone National Park when he discovered a new species of microorganism. These microbes were living – and living quite comfortably, thank you very much – in the park’s geothermal hot springs at temperatures that no organism, according to traditional biology, could possibly endure.

Thermus aquaticus, as these microbes are now called, were the first known extremophiles: a term derived from the English word extreme and the Greek word for love. Specifically, T. aquaticus are thermophiles, meaning they love intense heat. Other types of extremophile include:

  • Acidophiles: organisms that love acid.
  • Barophiles: organisms that love high-pressure environments.
  • Cryophiles: organisms that love cold environments (wait a minute… Mars is a cold environment).
  • Xerophiles: organisms that love extremely dry environments (Mars is extremely dry!).
  • Halophiles: organisms that love super salty water (whatever liquid water Mars might have would be too salty to even call it saltwater; planetary scientists usually call it brine).
  • Radioresistant organisms: I wish scientists called these guys “radiophiles” to fit with the others. Whatever we call them, there is a category of extremophiles that can live and thrive in high radiation environments (like Mars!).

And here’s one more word worth knowing: polyextremophiles. Those are organisms that fit into more than one category of extremophile.

I’m still pretty sure that I couldn’t survive on Mars, at least not without the aid of some pretty sophisticated technology. But given what science now knows about extremophiles here on Earth, we cannot rule out the possibility that something might be able to live – and live quite comfortably, thank you very much – on Mars.


Article by James Pailly. Check out James’ blog for more great science articles.

  • Leonardo Faria

    Let’s not forget Nitrogenphiles.
    The humanoid aliens in Tim Burton’s Mars Attack breathed Nitrogen.