The Physics and Biology of Life at Extremes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Physics and Astronomy


Very few environments are exposed to just one physical or chemical extreme. Most natural environments, from the interior of volcanoes to the interior of the human body, expose microorganisms to multiple extremes. Yet we know very little about how organisms adapt to multiple stresses, whether these stresses are synergistic or antagonistic and when they are defined by energetic limitations of the cell or physical limits.
In this project, we will use both laboratory and theoretical approaches to investigate the limits of life at extremes and in particular to study the physiological and biochemical response of microbes to individual and combined multiple extremes such as pH, temperature, salts and others. We will investigate whether the lack of isolated organisms at certain combined stresses reflects a sampling bias or a fundamental physical or energetic barrier to adaptation to these extremes.
As well as informing a general understanding of how life adapts to extremes, this work has diverse implications, for example for understanding how microbial life adapts to combined extremes within the human body as pathogens and whether it could potentially evolve in the multiple extremes of extraterrestrial environments.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509644/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2021
1861504 Studentship EP/N509644/1 01/10/2016 31/03/2020 Andrew Dickinson
Description This study shows multiple extremes potentially restrict the boundaries of the biosphere more than single stresses imposed alone. Thus the boundary space for life in natural environments may be smaller than research into the limits of life in individual extremes would suggest and habitable environments may in fact be less pervasive throughout the universe than previously thought.
Exploitation Route To determine the window of tolerance to environmental pressures imposed on microbial extremophiles is an essential tool in furthering our understanding of the evolution and diversification of life on Earth, and in making clearer the potential habitability of other planetary bodies, both within and beyond our Solar System. Further work examining growth responses across combinations of environmental stresses would help in developing a more robust definition of the physico-chemical boundaries of of global habitability.
Sectors Environment