A Moment of Science

The Magnificent Pompeii Worm

You know what a shock it is to go from a really cold air-conditioned building into a 95 degree outside. Well, today we discuss a worm that goes between extremes much greater than that all the time and seems to thrive on it.

Have you ever experienced the shock of jumping from one rather extreme temperature to another? It’s quite painful, and dangerous too. Scientists believe that organisms whose cells hold membrane-bound structures like nuclei cannot withstand rapid extreme temperature changes. They can adapt over time, but if the change happens too quickly, the membranes fall apart or freeze.

There’s one particular critter, with such membrane-bound structures I might add, that deals with a wide range of extreme temperatures on a daily basis. In fact, this creature might just deal with the widest shift in temperature of any other such organism. This magnificent creature is the Pompeii worm.

This worm resides in tubes near hydrothermal vents along the seafloor. While in the tube, the worm’s tail end might be immersed in temperatures as hot as 178 degrees Fahrenheit, while its head rests in cooler water, as moderate as 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Then to top that off, the worm often leaves its tube to forage for food in water as cool as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not only that, but besides the temperatures, the Pompeii worm has to deal with lethal chemicals too, like sulfides and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, zinc, and copper. Scientists think that symbiotic bacteria making the worm’s back their home may detoxify the water within the worm’s tube. If this proves true, those little bacteria could prove useful in cleaning up toxic waste sites.

So, not only do we have a magnificent worm here, we might have magnificent bacteria too.

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