Prof. John Bracht, American University/Creative Commons
- Researchers at American University have mapped the genome of the subterranean devil worm.
- Devil worms survive in extreme conditions with adaptations like 70 or more copies of a heat-protective gene.
- It’s common for genes to copy themselves, but 70 copies is an evolutionary feature, not a bug.
Rejoice, for the devil worm has been genetically mapped. Scientists have only known about the extremophile nematode since 2008 because it lives in such far underground and lifeless-seeming places. Its genome shows many adaptations designed to cope with the high heat where it lives.
The devil worm is nicknamed from its scientific name, Halicephalobus mephisto, after the character of legend who emerges from hell to bargain for Faust’s soul. “Now with the flames of ever-burning fire I’ll wing myself,” Mephistophilis says in Christopher Marlowe’s dramatization.
The real mephisto nematode wings itself with fire, too: Scientists found that it has duplicated a gene that repairs fire damage until it has 70 copies of the gene. It has multiple copies of a second protective gene, leading scientists to speculate that the microscopic animal has cloaked itself in armor to survive conditions in its environs. “It has no choice but to adapt or die,” one researcher said in the press release.
The devil worm is the first genetically mapped subterranean creature, which gives researchers hope that studying other organisms will yield similarly unusual and inspiring results. Much of cutting-edge science studies living things and uses their mechanisms and adaptations to help design better, stronger, more environmentally friendly, and otherwise advantageous new materials and machines.
The truth is stranger than fiction, and the devil worm is definitely stranger than its diabolical namesake. Understanding how microanimals like the devil worm live in extreme climates could lead to discoveries in how to protect above-ground wildlife from climate change or how to better insulate machinery to prevent heat waste. We just don’t know until we explore the genetic information and see what’s there.
Not only is the devil worm the first subterranean organism to have its genome mapped—it was the first creature of its kind to be found at all. Scientists didn’t believe living things could survive so far beneath the Earth’s surface, but this is far from the first time they were wildly wrong about life’s capacity to survive. For millennia, natural philosophers (the antique name for scientists) believed nothing could live below a certain point in the ocean because it was so cold and under such crushing pressure.
“From the time of Pliny until the end of the 19th century, people believed the deep sea was a lifeless wasteland,” scientist Anne Marie Helmenstine wrote. Their imagination for what was possible had to expand, and even then, scientists still believed there wasn’t life in the deeper parts of the deep sea. How could life exist where there was never any possibility of sunlight at all? They were wrong again.
Under the solid ground is a similarly inhospitable climate for life, and organisms that thrive in the deep sea have a lot in common with the devil worm. One major factor that many extremophiles share is their ability to tolerate or even feed off of methane instead of oxygen or carbon dioxide, like methanotrophs, which are bacteria that eat methane and release oxygen as a byproduct. In fact, the devil worm team reports that the existence of methanotrophs and other similar organisms is likely why nematodes have adapted to live there: a plentiful food source in an environment they’ve now grown to tolerate.
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- ^ mapped the genome (www.eurekalert.org)
- ^ genes to copy themselves (www.popularmechanics.com)
- ^ has been genetically mapped (www.eurekalert.org)
- ^ press release (www.eurekalert.org)
- ^ first creature of its kind (www.wired.com)
- ^ Anne Marie Helmenstine wrote (www.thoughtco.com)
- ^ They were wrong again (www.pbs.org)
- ^ methanotrophs (www.sciencedaily.com)
- ^ methane (www.popularmechanics.com)
- ^ the devil worm team reports (go.redirectingat.com)
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