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Worm Wizardry: World's Most Heat-Tolerant Creature Suggests Enzymes For Drugs OrIndustry, UD Prof Says

In a steamy underwater hell west of Costa Rica, weird deep-sea worms survive temperatures nearly hot enough to boil water--too hot for any other complex creature on Earth--and they don't care if their `heads' are two-and-a-half times cooler than their `tails,' a University of Delaware researcher reports in the Feb. 5, 1998 issue of Nature.

The study, directed by molecular biologist Craig S. Cary, an assistant professor in UD's College of Marine Studies, is believed to be the first report of a "eukaryotic metazoan" or higher-order life form capable of surviving sustained, long-term exposure to temperatures up to 176 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius).

Camped on each Pompeii worm's back, hairy-looking bacterial hitchhikers crank out enzymes that may hold the key to new protein-based catalysts for making drugs, paper, food and a host of other goods, according to Cary, lead author of the Nature paper, with Tim Shank of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers State University of New Jersey and Jeff Stein of Diversa Corp., San Diego, Calif.

"Because the Pompeii worm survives such a broad temperature gradient, so too must its bacterial partners," Cary says. "These bacteria may harbor unique eurythermal enzymes, capable of operating over a wide range of temperatures." In addition to their thermal versatility, he notes, eurythermal enzymes can be stored for longer periods of time, compared to conventional enzymes, and they can operate in organic solvents.

Cary's latest findings on Alvinella pompejana (the Pompeii worm) should boost the global search for new "extremophiles"--organisms tough enough to thrive in hot, corrosive, high-pressure environments. The applications for these organisms seem endless. Taq polymerase, for example, an extremophile enzyme discovered in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, now allows researchers to amplify and analyze tin
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Contact: Ginger Pinholster
ginger.pinholster@mvs.udel.edu
302-831-6408
University of Delaware
4-Feb-1998


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