What’s on : Lectures

Learning physics from ancient microbes: archaea and life at extreme conditions

26 Jan 2021
Start time
7:30 PM
Dr Laurence Wilson, Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics, University of York
Learning physics from ancient microbes: archaea and life at extreme conditions

Event Information

Learning physics from ancient microbes: archaea and life at extreme conditions
Professor Laurence Wilson, Department of Physics, University of York

Abstract: There are three main branches to the ‘tree of life’: bacteria, eukaryotes (including plants, animals and fungi), and archaea. The last of these is the least well known, and archaea were only established as a distinct lineage in the 1970s. Many archaeal species are found living in extreme conditions, at high temperatures, in acidic pools or in salt crystals. My lab specialises in developing new techniques in microscopy and applying these to understand how microbes move around and survive in the wild. I will discuss some of our field work at Great Salt Lake in Utah (USA), and in Boulby Mine in Redcar and Cleveland (UK). We isolated strains of archaea from both locations, sequenced their genomes and studied their swimming patterns in 3D using our holographic microscope. Intriguingly, they have ‘repurposed’ genetic components from bacteria to their own ends, and through computer simulations we have been able to show that their swimming behaviour and navigation strategies are right at the physical limit of what is physically possible in harsh, nutrient-poor environments.

This lecture will be held on Zoom and an invitation will be sent to YPS members

Image:Antelope Island in Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA

Member’s report

Archaea are, with bacteria and eukaryotes, the third domain of living organisms and consist of single-celled organisms lacking a nucleus. They may have existed considerably before eukaryotes (plants and animals whose cells have a nucleus) and bacteria, also prokaryotes, which they resemble but from which they differ in their cell structure; and they are very long-lived. They reproduce asexually by fission, fragmentation or budding. The physics of their motion is the same as in bacteria: a rotatory motor powering flagella to produce random movement. Finding feed is assisted by Brownian motion and chemical sensing.

Some archaea occupy a niche in the microbiome of other organisms; others are extremophiles – living and moving around in hostile environments, such as extreme cold or heat, or salt. Studies in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and Boulby potash mine, near Staithes, have shown that their archaea share common characteristics and possibly a common ancestor. Research will further our understanding of how physics shapes life, of interactions between species, and even how to look for life on other worlds. Potential industrial applications include farming the different extremophiles for chemicals and biofuels.

Carole Smith