Exploring the Unknown
For all the information that has been gathered about the microbial world, it is remarkable how little we know about its prokaryotic members. This is not surprising in view of the fact that less than 1% of the prokaryotes have ever been studied. In large part, this is because only one in a hundred of the prokaryotes in the environment can be cultured in the laboratory. Part of the current revolution in microbiology, however, will allow us to inventory the millions of species that are out there waiting to be discovered. Exploring the unknowns in the microbial world is a major challenge and should answer many intriguing questions fundamental to understanding the biological world. What are the extremes of temperature, salt, pH, radioactivity, and pressure in which prokaryotes can live? Who would have thought that some organisms, members of the Archaea, could live at temperatures above boiling water and a pH of sulfuric acid? Are there organisms growing in even more extreme environments? If life can exist on this planet under such extreme conditions, what does this mean about the possibility of finding living organisms on other planets?
Although considered highly unlikely, is it possible that living organisms exist whose chemical structure is not based on the carbon atom? Will living organisms be found whose genetic information is coded in a chemical other than deoxyribonucleic acid? What new metabolic pathways remain to be discovered? As extreme environments are mined for their living biological diversity, there seems little doubt that many surprises will be found. In many cases these surprises will be translated into new biotechnology products on this planet, and they will help shape the way we look for life on other planets.
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