The Biosphere

Extremophiles

Some organisms have adapted to survive environments that would kill most organisms.
Some biomes exist in places life was once thought to be impossible. The first extremophiles were discovered living in and on the hydrothermal vents (fissures that release hot fluid) on the ocean floor. The area around these vents can reach temperatures of up to 400°C and pressures of 500 atmospheres, and the water is filled with chemicals that are toxic to most life, such as sulfur compounds. However, microbes harness the heat from the vents and use the sulfur to form food, in a process not unlike photosynthesis in plants. Thriving ecosystems have thus built up around vents that would boil creatures on land.

Although all organisms need water, some species have been found to have special adaptations that allow them to survive when water is scarce. Endoliths are unicellular organisms that live inside rocks. They use the tiny amounts of water that fill the small spaces between minerals in the rock. The discovery of endoliths makes scientists hopeful that humans might someday find life on other planets.

Other organisms have found ways to survive dry spells. When water is scarce, some organisms replace the water in their cells with sugars, maintaining the shape of the cells. They can remain in this state of suspended animation for years, even centuries. When water is once again available, the sugars dissolve, and the organism revives. This is common in lichens and mosses but also occurs in other plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals such as tardigrades.

Tardigrade, an Extremophile

Tardigrades, also known as water bears, can survive in harsh environments. They can even enter a state of suspended animation when water is scarce.