Its discoverers have preliminarily named the roughly micron-wide speck "Strain 121" for the top temperature at which it survives: 121 degrees Celsius, or about 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Announcing Strain 121's record-breaking ability to take the heat in the August 15 issue of the journal Science, researchers Derek Lovley and Kazem Kashefi write, "The upper temperature limit for life is a key parameter for delimiting when and where life might have evolved on a hot, early Earth; the depth to which life exists in the Earth's subsurface; and the potential for life in hot, extraterrestrial environments."
Previously, the upper known temperature limit for life had been 113 C (235 F), a record held by another hyperthermophilic--or extreme-heat-liking--microbe called Pyrolobus fumarii.
The work by Lovley and Kashefi, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was supported by the National Science Foundation's Life in Extreme Environments program. Their NSF project may also yield clues to the formation of important ore deposits, the remediation of toxic contaminants, and more efficient recovery from petroleum reserves.
On a standard stovetop, water boils at 100 C, or 212 degrees F. Strain 121, however, comes from water at the ocean bottom, from a surreal deep-sea realm of hydrothermal vents. Heated to extremes by the earth's magma, water there spouts forth through leaks in the ocean floor. The pressure of the immense depths prevents such hot water from turning to steam--even as it sometimes emerges at temperatures near 400 C (750 F).
The sample cultured by Lovley and Kashefi was collected about 200 miles offshore from Puget Sound and nearly a mile and a half deep in the Pacific Ocean by a University of Washington team led by biological oceanographer John Baross.