Life in Extreme Environments

Capitalizing on recent research advances in the understanding of how life survives in extreme environments, the Division of Ocean Sciences expects to support a number of new interdisciplinary proposals as part of the Foundation-wide initiative LExEn. This program highlights the study of environments at the extremes of conditions on Earth (e.g. extremes in temperature, pH, salinity, and pressure), whether they be polar ice caps, deep ocean vents, or volcanic environments. Research on how life survives, and even flourishes in these extreme environments will highlight fundamental biological processes that are critical to understanding evolution of life on earth, as well as possible conditions that might support life on other planets.

In conjunction with nine other NSF divisions, OCE is participating in an agency-wide interdisciplinary review process to identify successful proposals from a pool of approximately 100 submissions that arrived for the April 14 deadline. NSF expects to award approximately $6 million to successful investigators in the first year of the competition.

Dr. Michael Purdy, Director for the Division of Ocean Sciences, is serving as coordinator for the NSF agency-wide team responsible for planning and development of the LExEn program. He is hopeful that the LExEn group will be successful in their bid for increased support in the coming years and is actively communicating with science managers at DOE, NASA, and NOAA to explore possibilities for engaging in joint activities related to LExEn goals.

For the first year of the LExEn competition, proposals were invited that focused on one or more of the following:

  • methods to isolate and culture microbes found in extreme environments,
  • methods to study these microbes in their natural habitats,
  • technologies for non-contaminating sample recovery,
  • sensors capable of probing extreme environments,
  • methods to study ancient microbial life and paleoenvironmental conditions on Earth; and
  • techniques for studying other planets.
  • Mike Purdy and other managers at NSF are in the process of developing plans for LExEn in 1998 and beyond. If you have questions or would like further information on OCE participation in LExEn, contact Mike Reeve, (703) 306 -1582,

    9°50'N on the East Pacific Rise. Organic matter and bacteria vented from the sea-floor immediately following volcanic eruptions in 1991. Next to the plume are sulfide chimneys partially covered by bacterial mats.


    photo provided by R. Haymon, UCSB, Dan Fornari & the ALVIN Group, WHOI