Earth's Hottest "Bods" May Belong to Worms

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The finding raises the question of how the worm survives such extreme heat.

James Childress, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has extensively studied hydrothermal vent systems. He said, "I believe the Pompeii worm probably survives by avoiding the very high temperatures [that] are found in its environment."

The worms are covered in a hairy, gray fleece composed of bacteria. The bacteria feed on mucus secreted by glands on the worms' backs. Cary said the fleece may function for the worms like a firefighter's heat blanket.

"Maybe the worm uses the fleece to help shield it from the intermittent blasts of hot water that it experiences in the tube. Or maybe they feed directly on their crop [of bacteria]," he said. "Right now, we really do not know. But the environment is so harsh that it is probable that [the bacteria] help the worm cope."

The bacteria have long been the main interest of Cary and his research colleagues. The scientists believe the organisms may harbor enzymes useful for cleaning up oil wells, processing new drugs, and speeding up chemical reactions used in industry.

"Metagenomic" Survey

To understand how the bacteria and the Pompeii worm work together to function in this extreme environment, Cary and his colleagues are conducting what they call a metagenomic survey of the microbial community.

"Basically, we decided that rather than try to look at each member of the community individually, we would look at all of them at once using the same genomic tools used to look at the human genome," Cary said.

The Human Genome Project was an international research effort completed in 2003 to map and sequence all the human genes.

Cary and his colleagues are sequencing the DNA from the bacterial community on the Pompeii worm's back and using a computer program to generate an image of the genes the community as a whole uses to survive.

The scientists hope to then construct an array of these genes and test them at the hydrothermal vent environment.

"Our hope is that through these analyses we will be able to answer many questions about the bacteria, the worm, and their environment," Cary said.

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