According to articles in the August 23, 1996 and September 23, 1996 Washington Posts, and Department of Energy (DOE) reports, there is a microbe, called Methanococcus jannaschii, that exists on the floor of the ocean, lives only in 185 degree Fahrenheit water, and needs pressures of approximately 3,700 pounds per square inch. Even though the 500 or more species of Archaea, of which this now-decoded microbe is but one, are thought to comprise at least 30--perhaps 50--percent of Earth's life mass, they tend not to exist in the same places as humans. The Antarctic Ocean is home to many of them.
The August 23, 1996 issue of the journal Science published the results of the work of a team of researchers from The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana. J. Craig Venter, of TIGR in Rockville, Maryland, spoke of how the lifeform differs from those previously known. "Two-thirds of the genes in this organism are new to science and biology," said Venter, the paper's senior author, proving the microbe to be from a class separate from the main two life branches: bacteria and eukaryotes--the latter encompassing protozoa and algae, fungi, animals and plants.
In 1977, Carl Woese and Ralph S. Wolfe of the University of Illinois at Urbana had proposed Archaea--then thought to be a bacteria subgroup--as the third branch of life. Their contention was not then accepted. But now that Archaea species have been found at the hot and cold places where no other life can exist, Woese's and Wolfe's conclusion is taken more seriously.
Studying the M. jannaschii has proven a challenge. Woese and colleagues had steel vats made which could hold the lifeform at a high pressure and temperature--and could vent away hazardous methane gas. (A thermal vent called a "white smoker" off California was where it was isolated originally in 1982.)
The organism may prove profitable, which has made research funding from the Office of Health and Environmental Research (OHER) of the DOE, under contract DE-FC0295ER61962.A001, easier to obtain. M. jannaschii can digest and concentrate heavy metals. Its byproduct, methane, can be used as a fuel, a promising quality in a world where fossil fuels are limited. Organisms of its class can probably be harnessed to create new sources of nonpolluting and renewable natural gas, and some can be used to clean up sites of hazardous waste, because some of them can withstand incredibly high radiation. Unlike many of the other forms of life, M. jannaschii does not need to eat organic carbon, and it lives away from even indirect rays of the sun.
There are theories that species of Archaea were the first lifeforms to exist on Earth, and may well be the type of life that could exist elsewhere in the universe. Some could have survived on the Earth of 3 billion years ago, and a number even thrive in the same acidity as concentrated sulfuric acid.
It is probable that NASA will be searching for their like on Mars. In the meantime, the study of Archaea, according to Venter, as quoted in the September 3, 1996 Washington Post, "represents the scientific equivalent of opening a new porthole on Earth and discovering a wholly new view of the universe."
It is sure to be a profitable undertaking. The August 23, 1996 San Francisco Chronicle related that Human Genomic Sciences, Inc., a biotechnology company, finances the nonprofit The Institute for Genomic Research, and thus has exclusive rights to the patents and exploitations of the institute's results.