Extremophiles – The Tiny Organisms Making Cross Curricular Links

As an astrobiologist extremophiles are amazing and such an important little organisms and they should be in your classroom too! Extremophiles are organisms that have adapted to survive in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. In Astrobiology extremophiles are used to see how we can extend the biogenic markers we use when searching for life. 


So, how can these tiny organisms make cross curricular links in science? 


Well, these tiny organisms can help you link all three sciences together seamlessly, and I am going to tell you how!

In Physics, when teaching how nuclear power stations work at GCSE we always talk about the water used as a coolant. Well, there is an extremophile (my favourite one in fact) called ‘radio resistant’ extremophiles. These are extremophiles that live in the coolant water in nuclear power stations, most power stations actually use antibiological treatments in the water now due to them. They have adapted to be able to repair and replace their radiated cells as quickly as they are damaged!

Extremophiles can also survive in high regions. When learning about pressure in a liquid column we discuss piezophiles, these are extremophiles that can survive high pressure and live on ocean floors. They do this by retaining unsaturated fats and proteins to maintain growth under high pressure. 

In Biology when talking about thermoregulation in animals I love telling them about pyschrophiles and thermophiles. Psychrophiles are adapted to live in very cold conditions, in order to survive they have adapted their internal chemical processes to produce an enzyme that acts as an antifreeze to stop the cytoplasm in their cells from freezing! Thermophiles are the opposite, they love the heat, they can be most commonly found in volcanoes(!) and hot sea vents, they again do this by manufacturing enzymes designed to survive under the intense heat. 

In chemistry when teaching about the pH scale or acid and alkalis I like to talk about acidophiles and alkaliphiles. Acidophiles have impermeable cell membranes to limit the protons moving into the cytoplasm. Alkaliphiles regulate their pH homeostasis by using proton antiporters to increase their uptake of H+ into their cytoplasm.


In Physics when talking about space this is where you can really go to town on extremophiles! When teaching the space topic of course the pupils always talk about aliens ‘Miss do you think there’s aliens?’ “Yes, definitely.’ I am not sure whether the ‘aliens’ will be intelligent human like life I think if we find alien life they will be extremophilic. By studying extremophiles on Earth it allows us to expand on the biogenic markers used when studying potential habitable zones and habitable planets and even moons.  Biogenic markers are the tell tale signs of life, for humans its water, carbon and oxygen. However when introducing extremophilic life these biogenic markers can be greatly increased. They love this, be prepared for questions! 


Recently in the news it was announced that they have found a biogenic marker for extremophilic life on Venus in its atmosphere. Phosphine has been found in the atmosphere. Phosphine can only be produced in two ways – biologically or in a lab. Unless there is intelligent life on Venus producing it in a lab there must be alien extremophilic life on Venus!


Thank you for reading, if you have any questions on extremophiles please send me a message on Twitter @MissCJenner


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