6 Minute English
Life on the edge
Episode 170119 / 19 Jan 2017
The increased study of extremophile microbes has revealed a lot about what is and is not needed to sustain life on Earth. It has also given rise to new theories about how and when life began. Neil and Alice discuss extremophile environments and how these differ from their own favourite places.
This week's question
Which have extremophiles living in them? Is it…
a) Grand Canyon?
b) Death Valley National Park?
You'll hear the answer at the end of the programme.
microorganisms that have adapted to live in what we would consider to be extreme conditions
hot springs that shoot hot water and steam into the air
really tiny life forms that can only be seen with a microscope
the study of plants
the study of animals
a group of single-celled microbes similar to bacteria but different to all other known types
a multicellular organism– and includes animals, plants, and fungi
holes in the ocean floor from which flow mineral-rich superheated water from the Earth's crust
Note: This is not a word-for-word transcript.
Hello and welcome to 6 Minute English. I'm Alice…
And I'm Neil. So Alice, what's your ideal place to be?
Curled up on the sofa with a good book in front of a log fire. Last night it was very cold.
Well, for me, lying in a hammock under a palm tree on a tropical beach with a cool breeze. I don't like when it's too hot.
Yes, true. Humans don't cope well with extremes of temperature but some species do. The subject of today's show is extremophiles – these are microorganisms that have adapted to live in what we would consider to be extreme conditions. For example, living in near boiling acidic water or frozen at the bottom of an Antarctic lake.
Those do sound like pretty extreme conditions.
Yes. The thing is, what sounds hostile – or unfriendly – to us, are perfect environments for extremophiles and in fact they wouldn't survive without them. Now, are you tough enough to face up to today's quiz question, Neil?
I think so.
Alright then, here goes: which US National Park is home to geysers – or hot springs that shoot hot water and steam into the air – which have extremophiles living in them? Is it…
a) Grand Canyon?
b) Death Valley National Park?
Or c) Yellowstone?
That's easy - it has to be c) Yellowstone.
OK, well we'll find out if you got the answer right later on in the show. But, moving on, now, Neil, did you know that extremophiles belong to an entirely different group of living things to other animals and plants?
No. I imagined extremophiles would be like insects, because insects are pretty tough, aren't they?
Yes, that's true. But remember, extremophiles are microorganisms – they're really tiny. Let's listen to Ian Crawford, Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck University of London. He tells us how in the 1970s a scientist called Carl Woese identified a new kingdom of living things that he called 'archaea' – meaning 'ancient ones'. The extremophiles belong to this group.
Ian Crawford, Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck University of London
Well, the old tree of life idea basically talked about empires if you like, of plants, and animals, and things that we can see, essentially. We put a great deal of emphasis on large organisms and the traditional distinction in biology between botany and zoology. What it really did was say 'that's all wrong – there's really only three major groups in life: there's the archaea, the bacteria, and the eukaryotes, which is all of this complex life'; and so it kind of put humans into a small corner of the tree of life next to plants and whatever else. It kind of squashes us again after being the centre of the universe.
So botany is the study of plant life, and zoology is the study of animal life. But maybe you can explain 'archaea', and 'eukaryotes', Alice.
Archaea are a group of single-celled microbes similar to bacteria but different to all other known types. Eukaryote is the scientific term for organisms with a much larger and more complex type of cell– and this group includes all animals, plants, and fungi.
But why are archaea so important? Why do they need a whole biological domain to themselves, while we humans get squashed up in one domain with plants and fungi?
Well, Neil, it's likely they've have been living on our planet ever since the Earth became habitable – and that's billions of years. And they are still living and thriving in a whole range of different environments today.
And when something is thriving it means it's doing well! So tell us about where they live, Alice.
Some live in hydrothermal vents – holes in the ocean floor hundreds of metres down where there's lots of pressure and no sunlight. And mineral-rich superheated water is coming out of the Earth's crust and then flowing out through these holes.
I see… Well, what about cold-loving extremophiles?
Well, scientists have found them in hidden lakes trapped beneath ice sheets hundreds of metres thick in Antarctica. It takes days to drill through the ice to reach the water.
And how do they survive down there?
Well, these microbes have found a way of getting energy from certain minerals like iron and sulphur present in the water.
That sounds clever for a microbe – how did they figure that out?
It isn't a question of cleverness - it's a question of adaptation. Extremophiles are extremely well adapted to their environment and they appeared on Earth much earlier than more complex life forms. Let's hear from Nick Lane, Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London.
Nick Lane, Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London
The origin of the Eukaryotic cell, it seems to have happened once, it took about 2 billion years before that happened. Then there was kind of a great leap forward at the cellular level, but another billion years went by before we see animals.
So, basically, the animal kingdom is much newer than the archaean kingdom.
Indeed. And now it's time for the answer to today's quiz question, Neil. I asked: which US National Park is home to geysers that have extremophiles living in them? Is it… a) Grand Canyon, b) Death Valley National Park or c) Yellowstone?
And I said c) Yellowstone. I must be right.
Yes, Neil, you are right - it's Yellowstone National Park. Every year, scientists discover remarkable new microbes in Yellowstone's hot springs, with implications for medicine, agriculture and energy, as well as offering clues to the formation of the earliest life on Earth.
Very interesting. Now, here are the words we heard today:
And that's the end of today's 6 Minute English. Don't forget to join us again soon!
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The price of vaccines has escalated and some poor countries are struggling to prevent children from catching certain life-threatening diseases, says Medecins Sans Frontieres. Listen to Rob and Neil’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150219 / 19 Feb 2015
Will thinking computers be the end of humans? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150212 / 12 Feb 2015
About 37,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica this season. But should they be going to a region with such a sensitive environment? Listen to Rob and Neil’s conversation and learn some new vocabulary.
Episode 150205 / 05 Feb 2015
At a time when more people compete for fewer jobs, are you sure you present your skills and abilities well to a potential employer? Listen to Rob and Neil's conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150129 / 29 Jan 2015
Going to a party where you don't know anyone? Listen to Rob and Neil's advice and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150122 / 22 Jan 2015
We use computers for everything nowadays. Are we forgetting our own abilities - and losing our talent? Listen to Rob and Neil's discussion, and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150115 / 15 Jan 2015
Smoking in cars with children might be banned in England. Listen to Neil and Rob's chat and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150108 / 08 Jan 2015
Is bullying just an attempt to give a bad name to what is part of human nature? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150101 / 01 Jan 2015
What would you put in your time capsule? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141225 / 25 Dec 2014
When enemy soldiers sang together in WW1. Listen to Rob and Finn’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 141218 / 18 Dec 2014
The London school where students speak 42 different languages
Episode 141211 / 11 Dec 2014
Laughter isn't always the best medicine, says research
Episode 141204 / 04 Dec 2014
Are your pictures, documents and videos safe online? Listen to Rob and Finn's chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141127 / 27 Nov 2014
Nowhere to park? How the sharing economy is changing the way we use our space
Episode 141120 / 20 Nov 2014
How can science fiction help the world? Rob and Finn discuss a project which aims to inspire through stories of a bright future
Episode 141113 / 13 Nov 2014
Why is eating meat bad news?
Episode 141106 / 06 Nov 2014
Do real-life superheroes exist or are they just cartoon characters?
Episode 141030 / 30 Oct 2014
Rob and Finn discuss the World Health Organisation's recommendations on e-cigarettes
Episode 141023 / 23 Oct 2014
Should we eat less sugar? Listen to Rob and Neil and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141016 / 16 Oct 2014
Is learning English getting easier? Find out what's new
Episode 141009 / 09 Oct 2014
Why do we buy so much food and not eat it all? Learn more about food waste
Episode 141002 / 02 Oct 2014
Is it right to sleep at work? Rob and Finn discuss the benefits of sleeping on the job.
Episode 140929 / 29 Sep 2014
Is the way we see famous people a new thing? Learn about the first 'modern celebrity'.
Episode 140821 / 21 Aug 2014
Bored? You're not alone. Rob and Finn discuss how to deal with boredom and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won't be bored!