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How "Extremophiles" in Toxic Waste Sites
May Hold the Cure to Cancer

Organisms known as extremophiles -- which literally means "someone who loves extremes" -- may one day provide a cure for cancer and other diseases, and already help clean up toxic oil spills. How? The organisms hold a variety of secrets that allow them to survive in circumstances where most other species would perish.


Some extremophiles can survive at temperatures significantly above the boiling point.

Extremophiles Survive in the Harshest Environments

The first extremophile ever discovered was found in the late 1960s in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. The organism thrived in temperatures above 160 degrees F and was given the name Thermus aquaticus, or "warm bath water dweller."

Since then, extremophiles have been found in even more severe environments and conditions, and include:

  • Thermophiles and hyperthermophiles: Live in extremely hot conditions, including significantly above the boiling point.

  • Psychrophiles: Live in below-freezing cold temperatures.

  • Acidophiles: Live in highly acidic solutions.

  • Alkaliphiles: Live in base solutions.

  • Halophiles: Thrive in salty conditions.

  • Piezophiles: Survive in extreme high-pressure environments.

  • Xerophiles: Live in extremely dry conditions.

Other extremophiles are able to survive high doses of nuclear radiation or thrive in jet fuel.

Potential Cancer Cures?

Extremophiles are very interesting to scientists because they are able to adapt, thrive even, in the worst conditions. The mechanisms by which they adapt may be able to be harnessed into potential cures for cancer and many other diseases.

For instance, while halophiles protect themselves from high-saline conditions by increasing their own concentration of salts, and psychrophiles survive extreme cold using antifreeze-like proteins, other extremophiles are able to easily repair DNA damage -- even that from high-energy radiation.

Advantages such as these may be useful to one day help clean up radioactive spills or provide protection against skin cancer, migraines and leukemia.

Cancer Cures from a Toxic Waste Site

Among the most exciting of the extremophile discoveries are the microbes from Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana. Berkeley Pit is a former open-pit copper mine, which contains 40 billion gallons of highly toxic waste from its copper-producing past and has earned the morbid honor of being the nation's largest Superfund site.

Amidst the metal residue and toxic waste, scientists have identified over 160 different fungi and bacteria.

"That's the coolest thing about this -- that toxic waste could yield compounds that could help fight diseases," said Dr. Andrea Stierle, a research professor at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

"Some of the microbes in the pit may be every bit as valuable as any ore that was taken from that same area," she said.

Part of the excitement stems from the microbes' ability to kill off other organisms, which may be useful in killing cancer cells.

"Like any organism growing with other organisms, they compete for space," said Don Stierle, a chemistry professor at Montana Tech (and Andrea's husband). "They've gotten good in that competition for space, killing other organisms."

extremophiles outer space

Aside from potentially holding a cure for cancer, extremophiles may hold the secrets to life in outer space.

The husband-wife team has already identified microbes from the pit that are effective against cancer cells in test tubes. The National Cancer Institute is also interested in the microbes, though they say much more investigation is needed before an anti-cancer drug could be developed.

"We could potentially find compounds that could affect any type of cancer," Andrea Stierle said. "Prostrate cancer, lung, brain cancer ... It's still miles away from a cure, but it raises the possibility, certainly the potential, of helping with these horrible diseases."

A Sign of Life in Outer Space?

The existence of extremophiles here on earth has many experts wondering if they also exist in the extreme conditions in space. In fact, experts agree that if extraterrestrial life does exist, it is likely in the form of extremophiles similar to the ones on earth.

Among the many potential homes to space extremophiles are Mars, which has hints of methane gas in its atmosphere that may be a by-product of microbial life, and Jupiter's moon, Europa, which is thought to have a subsurface ocean rich in magnesium salts.

Also interesting is the discovery that microbes in Yellowstone's hot springs use hydrogen as their primary fuel source, not sulfur as was previously thought.

"Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe," said John Spear of the University of Colorado, lead author of the study. "If there is life elsewhere, it could be that hydrogen is its fuel."

Recommended Reading

Finding Cures Under the Sea: The Search for New Medicines in Our Oceans

The 8 Most Unusual Sources of Potential Cancer Cures


Chicago Tribune December 22, 2006

ABC News October 10, 2006

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