Extremophilic microorganisms as candidates for extraterrestrial life

Joseph Seckbach*, Aharon Oren

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Microbial life is found all over the globe. Diverse communities are even found in such places in which extreme conditions with respect of temperature, salinity, pH, and pressure prevail. Many of these environments were until recently considered too harsh to harbor microbial life. The microorganisms adapted to an existence at the edge of life are termed extremophiles. They include members of the Prokaryotes (domains Archaea and Bacteria) and the Eukarya, including algae and protozoa. Extremophilic microbes thrive at low and high temperatures - from subzero levels to above the boiling point of water, at both sides of the pH scale - in acidic as well as in alkaline media, in hypersaline environments with salt concentrations of up to saturation, at high pressure, both in the deep sea and in the terrestrial deep subsurface where they are exposed to pressures of hundreds of atmospheres, and in other extreme conditions. In many cases they tolerate combinations of more than one environmental stress factor. Some of these extremophiles may be considered as `living fossils' since their environment resembles the conditions that may have existed during the time life arose on Earth, more than 3.5 billion years ago. In view of these properties the extremophilic microorganisms may be considered as model organisms when exploring the possibilities of the existence of extraterrestrial life. For example, the microbes discovered in ice cores recovered from the depth of the Lake Vostok in Antarctica may serve as a model simulating conditions prevailing in the permafrost subsurface area of Mars or Jupiter's moon Europa. Microbial life in the Dead Sea or in Great Salt Lake may resemble halophilic life forms that may exist elsewhere in the universe, adapted to life at low water activities. Likewise, hyperthermophilic microorganisms present on Earth in hot springs, hydrothermal vents and other sites heated by volcanic activity in terrestrial or marine areas, may resemble life forms that may exist on hot planets such as Venus.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)89-96
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of SPIE - The International Society for Optical Engineering
StatePublished - 2000
EventInstruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology III - San Diego, CA, USA
Duration: 1 Aug 20002 Aug 2000


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