Life on the Edge

Scientists search Russia's remotest area for clues to origins of life

October 08, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

Uzon Caldera, Russia -- In the unspoiled land of Kamchatka, nearly as far east as one can go in the Russian Far East, in a vast volcano crater reachable only by helicopter, American geologist Christopher Romanek crouches in thigh-high rubber boots and dips an electronic temperature probe into a hot spring's trickling stream.

The pool's bubbling source is a steamy 164 degrees. And in it may lie clues to one of the most puzzling conundrums of science: how life on earth began.

Romanek is part of a team of American and Russian scientists who, for four years running, have used Kamchatka as a laboratory for the study of extremophiles - organisms which, as their name suggests, live in extreme environments. That means places that are bitterly cold, like the inside of an Arctic glacier, or under crushing pressure, like the bottom of a deep sea. In this case, it means one in which almost everything else would boil to death.

Some scientists believe conditions in the thermal fields of the Uzon in Kamchatka, a sparsely populated, volcanically active peninsula a little larger than California, mimic those when life began some 3 1/2 billion to 4 billion years ago.

"We really think this is one of the few spots on earth you can go to that kind of simulates the conditions of early Earth," Paul Schroeder, a University of Georgia geologist, explained one day as he collected soil samples and held them up against a color chart, as if matching paint chips. "That's really why we're here."

It is not a stretch to imagine life beginning in a place like this. In many spots, it looks positively primordial. Mud pots gurgle and sputter. Water bubbles and hisses. Steam rises as if from a cauldron.

The hot springs' names range from the practical to the playful: A pair of round lakes in the Eastern Thermal Field makes up "Figure 8." Two modest pools in the Orange Thermal Field are "Brothers." A greenish spring that looks refreshing enough to drink is "Limeade." The pools' vibrant colors, which can change radically and inexplicably from one day to the next, are in part a reflection of what's living in them.

Armed with a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the 11 scientists have come for two weeks of field work. They represent a range of specialties from microbiology to mineralogy and hail from six institutions in the U.S. and Russia. Last year, Frank Robb of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore, a leading expert on thermophiles and one of the grant's co-principal investigators, made the trip. He is studying how molecular "chaperones" help keep thermophiles "out of trouble," as he describes it, at temperatures that normally sizzle DNA.

It takes about as long to get here as it would to the end of the Earth, if there were such a thing. Kamchatka - known, for its 30 or so active volcanoes, as a "land in the making" - is over 5,000 miles and nine hours by plane from Moscow; the Uzon Caldera, in turn, is 110 miles and a 75-minute helicopter ride north of the regional capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Part of the scientists' charge is to find new organisms, and already they have found several. A sludgy sediment sample in a single test tube contains millions, even tens of millions, of microbes. Some, with no use for oxygen, "eat" and "breathe" arsenic, ammonia or hydrogen sulfide instead.

But the diverse group of scientists also hopes to shed light on something none of their specialties can fully explain alone: the complex and dynamic interactions between the biology, geology and chemistry of the pools.

Microbiologist Tatyana Sokolova of the Vinogradsky Institute of Microbiology at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow has been visiting the Uzon since 1995; her interest is in microorganisms that oxidize, or burn, carbon monoxide. Her enthusiasm manifests itself in a girl-like giggle and an inability to sleep through the night. When she sees greatly magnified images on her laptop of thermophiles she has discovered, she all but coos, caling them "dear," as if they were her own children.

The chemical reactions in the steaming springs may mimic those during Earth's earliest days, which could lead to new theories about how the primordial soup spawned life. Understanding how microorganisms here live could also help scientists figure out whether life has existed on other planets. The microbes, which contain unique enzymes, could likewise benefit the development of new medicines or detergents.

The landscape of the Uzon underscores an easily overlooked fact: Life is mind-bogglingly diverse. Scientifically, it's divided into three domains: eukaryotes, of which plants and animals, including humans, are a part; bacteria; and archaea (pronounced ar-KEY-a), a group of microorganisms discovered in the 1970s that are among the Earth's'hardiest.

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