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Paris—Extremophiles thrive in the bubbling acidic springs of Yellowstone, in ocean beds miles below the sea surface, and in the radioactive pools of nuclear power plants. They flourish in places so hostile that any other living being would be crushed, dissolved, or melted within seconds. These tiny organisms were discovered during the second half of the 20th century, and today they happen to be Patrick Forterre's passion. Professor Forterre works at the Pasteur Institute, named after Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French scientist who fathered what we now call microbiology and who discovered, among other breakthroughs, the vaccines for anthrax and rabies and the pasteurization process.
For any normal human being, walking through the Pasteur Institute's corridors is a frightening experience. Women and [End Page 93] men in lab coats chat mindlessly while holding white polystyrene boxes at arm's length. It is easy to be overcome with a paralyzing fear that these boxes contain killer microbes ready to bore into your body, giving you a foretaste of hell while they turn your flesh into a microscopic battlefield. In the same way sharks became a public marine nightmare after Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a host of Hollywood movies suggests the only good microbe is an eradicated one.
That is, of course, wrong. Without the billions of microbes that live inside our bodies, it would be impossible to turn the food we eat into energy. Worse, without the billions of microbes that carpet the oceans' surface, we wouldn't be here at all. There wouldn't be any oxygen for us.
Forterre is a tall, slim, white-bearded, white-haired man with a ready smile who has spent his career studying extremophiles. Some 30 years ago, he explains, scientists believed that all life on Earth could be classified into two categories. Depending on their type of cells, they are either eukaryotes, which include plants, fungi, and all animals, even humans or prokaryotes, single-celled organisms that lack a nucleus. Thanks to the discovery of extremophiles, we have found a third way of being alive on Earth. Members of this new category are called archae, some of whom have special cell walls that require extreme environments.
A Wrong Question
After being reassured that nearby microbes weren't going to jump out of their containers to infect us, I asked Forette how his studies of extremophiles could benefit humanity. He could have answered that the DNA analysis used on television and in real life by police investigators wouldn't exist without extremophiles. He could have said that countless diseases may one day be cured, or even that they may give us clues about the emergence of life on our planet. But he offers none of these explanations. Instead, he pauses for a moment and, with a sigh, says that he suspects no one has ever asked me such a question. He's right.
Between 2000 and 2006, I was Professor Stephen Hawking's Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, in England. When asked what I did for a living, my reply—"I work on black holes and the origin of our Universe"—was usually followed by a long silence. But no one ever asked me why I studied odd things like that. Black holes and the origin of our universe naturally seem to be fair subjects to study. Why, then, not extremophiles? Why did my first question on these tiny pieces of living revolve around their practical applications and not the theory of their very existence? Is it because they are too small to be visible and hence don't appeal to the feeling of awe that grips people looking at the night sky? Is it because once it is known they belong to the realm of microbes they just become subjects of fear? [End Page 94]
Perhaps. But it's more likely the real reason is simply that their story hasn't yet been told in the right way—and I suspect this is true for most scientific research. At a political level, this is one of the most pressing issues faced by scientists and policymakers today...