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Reports of "weird life" almost stranger than fiction

BOZEMAN, MT--Michael Daly occasionally gets letters from schoolchildren who find "the worlds toughest bacterium"listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand 10,000 times the amount of radiation that would kill a human, earning it monikers like "Super Bug"and "Conan the Bacterium."

"It's just phenomenal how much radiation life can take and remain viable,"said Daly, a scientist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a military medical school in Bethesda, MD.

Daly was one of about 20 scientists who talked about their studies of "weird life,"or life in extreme environments, at a recent conference near Big Sky, MT.

Sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the conference will help the space agency finetune programs aimed at understanding how life began in the violent early years of the planet. Those answers may help determine whether life could exist elsewhere in the universe. The gathering was organized by the Thermal Biology Institute at Montana State University-Bozeman.

"We may be the generation to understand the origins of life,"said Anne Kinney, director of NASA's Astronomical Search for Origins and Planetary Systems Program.

Recalling how Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons altered people's world view in the 16th century, Kinney said astrobiology--or the search for life in outer space--could have a similar impact in our day.

"It comes down to, 'Are we the center of the universe or not',"Kinney said.

On this planet, life is not limited to the cushy places. Microbes--mostly bacteria and organisms from a domain of life called archaea--live in some of the coldest, hottest, deepest, driest, saltiest, most acidic, nutrient-poor and oxygen-deprived environments scientists have thought to look.

"It's a burgeoning field,"said John Spear of the University of Colorado. "People are literally beginning to look under the rocks."
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Contact: Annette Trinity-Stevens
annettet@montana.edu
406-994-5607
Montana State University
28-Mar-2000


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