“…we don’t yet have the full picture of our weird and whimsical home planet” — Ariel Waldman
The Earth is a strange and alien place. There are several extreme environments where no life should live, much less thrive. Yet, life prevails in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, anoxic and acidic hot springs, and beneath the ice-shelf at the southernmost portion of our planet.
An extremophile is an organism that has specifically evolved to support life in extreme environments. What defines an extreme environment can be difficult to pinpoint, but they often lack nutrients and oxygen, and exist at extremely low or high temperatures and pressures. The conditions that make an environment extreme make it uninhabitable for most of the kingdoms of life. Extremophiles are typically microorganisms — but do not let that fool you. Microorganisms like bacteria and yeast absolutely qualify as biological life. Microorganisms have cells, grow, evolve, and reproduce, like you and I. This commonality makes their ability to withstand extreme environments even more impressive.
Ariel Waldman is an author, Antarctic explorer, and TED 2020 speaker. In 2018, Ariel was afforded the opportunity to climb glaciers and dive beneath the sea ice in Antarctica, as part of a National Science Foundation program. What she found, wedged between the seafloor and an illuminated ceiling of ice, “was just absolutely magical”. Seed shrimp, diatoms, nematodes, rotifers, and tardigrades were just some of a wide variety of microbial life that Ariel found lurking underneath the ice shelves and in subglacial ponds. Entire books could be written about each of these unique microorganisms. The hardiness of the tardigrade is especially fascinating. Tardigrades, known colloquially as water bears, can survive not only trapped in ice, but in the vacuums of space as well.
Ariel encourages us to explore what we cannot see. Many of our planet’s greatest mysteries remain hidden, either by location (extreme environments) or by size (extremophiles). That so many microorganisms thrive in places considered barren and lifeless is simply amazing. As quoted from the 1993 film Jurassic Park, an extreme environment in its own right, “Life, finds a way”.
The tardigrade, informally known as the water bear, is one of several microorganisms that have been found underneath the ice shelves. The water bear can be found in nearly all habitats, to include mountaintops, the deep sea, and mud volcanoes. Water bears are extremely resilient. They can withstand extreme temperatures and pressures, and even outer space.
Mahdi Al-Husseini is an engineer, computer scientist, and US Army medical evacuations helicopter pilot.