Archaea are the most extreme of all extremophiles— some kinds live in the frigid environments of Antarctica, others live in the boiling acidic springs of Yellowstone. These single-celled organisms have no nucleus, but have a unique, tough outer cell wall. This tough wall contains molecules and enzymes that may keep acid out of the organism, allowing it to live in environments of pH 3 or less. (Vinegar, for example, has a pH of less than 3.) Archaea also have protective enzymes within their cells to keep them from becoming too acidic.
Some scientists think present-day archaea have not changed much from their ancestors. This may be due to the extreme environments in which they live, which would allow little chance for successful changes to occur. If this is so, modern archaea may not be much different from the original forms—and thus provide an important link with Earth’s earliest life forms.
Once thought to be Bacteria, organisms in the domain Archaea actually may be more closely related to Eukarya—which includes plants and animals.
Many kinds of archaea live in the hydrothermal waters of Yellowstone. For example, Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin contains archaea. They are most well known in the superheated acidic features of Norris Geyser Basin and in the muddy roiling springs of the Mud Volcano area.
Whenever you see a hot, muddy, acidic spring, you are probably seeing the results of a thriving community of archaeal cells called Sulfolobus. This is the archaea most often isolated and most well known by scientists. In sulfuric hydrothermal areas, it oxidizes sulfur into sulfuric acid, which helps dissolve the rocks into mud. The Sulfolobus community in Congress Pool (Norris) is providing interesting new research directions for scientists: It is parasitized by viruses never before known on Earth.
Almost all hot springs and geysers host thermophilic bacteria.
Microscopic plants and animals live in the extreme environments of Yellowstone's hydrothermal features.
Viruses, a logical part of thermophilic ecosystems, have been found in some pools in Yellowstone.
Thermophilic communities are very diverse, depending on the microbes living there, the pH, and the water temperature.
Thermophiles in Time and Space
Yellowstone's hydrothermal features and thermophilic communities are studied by scientists searching for evidence of life on other planets.
Last updated: October 15, 2020