Recently, the DCO Executive Committee and members of the Deep Life (DL) and Extreme Physics and Chemistry (EPC) Communities identified extreme biophysics as an important area of research for addressing DCO’s decadal goals. To jump-start this initiative, Catherine Royer (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Roland Winter (DL Scientific Steering Committee Member, TU Dortmund, Germany), Doug Bartlett (DL Scientific Steering Committee Member, University of California San Diego, USA), and Toshiko Ichiye (Georgetown University, USA) received funding from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation to support a variety of activities. These activities include a workshop to take place this November at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, USA, as well developing a high-pressure cell for high-resolution optical microscopy.
Extremes of pressure, temperature, and ecosystem chemistry have shaped how extreme microbial niches adapt over geological time. The biological adaptations to these extremes may include genetic or epigenetic adaptations, modifications in gene expression, and/or changes in cellular chemistry, among other possibilities.
The workshop will chart a research path for addressing the fundamental biophysical limits of life in extreme environments, based upon known facets of basic chemistry and physics. This path will involve investigating known mechanisms for molecular adaptation, such as changes in protein sequence or alterations in cytosol chemistry, as well as innovating new avenues for research and discovery.
As part of this effort, new biophysical instrumentation adapted to extreme pressure, temperature and/or chemical environments is needed. To address some unmet needs in the area of extreme biophysical instrumentation, part of the Sloan Foundation funding will be used to develop a chamber for high-resolution quantitative optical imaging that can withstand several thousand atmospheres of pressure. This device, which will allow single cell, single molecule studies of the responses of live bacteria, yeast and higher eukaryotic cells to pressure, will be made available to the Extreme Biophysics group of the DL community.
This proposal will bring together scientists from multiple DCO Communities, particularly from DL and EPC. By bringing together experts in biophysics, microbiology, and other related disciplines, this initiative will refine the known limits of life on Earth and, therefore, identify as-yet unknown locales where life might survive.