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Even Extremophiles Know When to Back Off

A few years ago, I was working on a story involving a somewhat personal fact of life for women. It was the sort of think most would feel uncomfortable about discussing for the Sunday front page of Washington’s largest newspaper. I wanted to talk about this fact of life with a high-profile and female captain of industry, so I called the assistant of a Seattle bank president. The response was quick but polite: ixnay on the intervieway.

When I mentioned this outcome to a fellow reporter, she said, “People don’t get to a position like that by taking a lot of chances.”

Malcolm Gladwell had a similar thesis in a New Yorker piece earlier this year, asserting that entrepreneurs–seeming swashbucklers of the capitalist set–actually prefer to take the cautious if not sure route to wealth. (You can read the top here.)

It turns out that one of  the most crazy seeming animals is a pretty risk-averse creature as well.

The extremophile sulfide worm lives on the edge, but not too on the edge.

This character is known to science as Paralvinella sulfincola. It’s an extremophile–one of several recently discovered microbes and animals capable of living in environments of seemingly unbearable heat, pressure and acidity.

In a paper just out in the journal Nature Communications, a Washington State University biologist and New Zealand collaborator ask just how harsh the sulfide worm might like things. It turns out, not too much.

Raymond Lee, an associate professor in the WSU School of Biological Sciences, and lead author Amanda Bates of New Zealand’s University of Otago tested inch-long sulfide worms found on thermal vents a mile below the ocean surface on the Juan de Fuca ridge off British Columbia. They placed the worms in aquariums with hot and not-so-hot sections and found that the worms made a point of going to the cooler areas, even if they could handle temperatures of up to 55 degrees C, or 131 degrees F.

“The surprising finding is they are very conservative,” said Lee, who explored the vents using the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research submarine Alvin on a National Science Foundation grant. “They have a high thermal tolerance, but they don’t prefer to be near that high thermal tolerance. That tolerance is more a safety mechanism.”

The finding rebuts speculation that surfaced in the mid 1990s that these types of worms live between 60 and 80 degrees C., or 140 to 176 degrees F. In separate experiments, Lee and Bates found none of the worms could survive above 60 degrees C.

Lee said the work gives some insight into how animals work and the more limited environmental extremes that multicellular organisms can handle.

It’s a lesson we can all take to heart. It may look like deep-ocean bugs, acid loving worms, and captains of industry love heat and pressure. But over the course of a lifetime or the run of a species, it makes sense to take it easy out there.

Read more about Lee’s work in the Winter 2006 Washington State Magazine.