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Life gets extreme in seafloor chimneys.

A set of volcanic chimneys that scientists pulled up from the ocean floor last summer is yielding a rogues' gallery of microbes, including what may be some of the toughest forms of life ever discovered. "There is an abundance of bugs throughout these structures," says biologist Matthew O. Schrenk of the University of Washington in Seattle. "There are some possibly at temperatures higher than we've seen [microbes living at] in the lab."

The chimneys came from a Pacific Ocean site about 200 kilometers north of Axial Seamont on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The ridge marks where two oceanic plates join. As the plates pull away from each other, liquid rock wells up from Earth's interior to fill the gap, creating new ocean crust.

The chimneys, which resemble stalagmites, form when volcanically heated brines spew out of the ocean floor and instantly deposit a variety of sulfide minerals, such as pyrite. Over the past 2 decades, researchers have found a host of heat-loving microorganisms living on the exterior of these chimneys.

In July 1998, a team from the University of Washington and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City hoisted up four 1.5-meter-tall pieces of sulfide chimneys, each weighing between 500 and 2,000 kilograms. Biologists collected samples from throughout the chimneys. At the center of the structures, water temperatures can reach more than 350 [degrees] C.

Schrenk and his colleagues cultured microbes from most parts of the chimneys. "They're living quite close to the central conduit, maybe at temperatures of 200 [degrees] C or more," he says. The team plans to analyze minerals from the chimneys to better estimate temperatures and will try to grow the organisms at high temperatures. The existing record for life in the laboratory is 113 [degrees] C. --R.M
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Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 2, 1999
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