Sunday, July 11, 2010
July 11, 2010 : Pompeii Worm
The Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana) is a deep-sea polychaete vermiform extremophile found only at hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean, discovered in the early 1980s off the Galápagos Islands by French researchers.
They can reach up to 5 inches in length and are pale gray with red tentacle-like gills on their heads. Perhaps most fascinating, is that their tail end is often resting in temperatures as high as 176 °F (80 °C), while their feather-like head sticks out of the tubes into water that is a much cooler 72 °F (22 °C). Scientists are attempting to understand how Pompeii worms can withstand such extreme temperatures by studying the bacteria that form a "fleece-like" covering on their backs. Living in a symbiotic relationship, the worms secrete mucus from tiny glands on their backs to feed the bacteria, and in return they are protected by some degree of insulation. The bacteria have also been discovered to be chemolithotrophic, contributing to the ecology of the vent community. Recent researches suggest that the bacteria might play an important role in the feeding of the worms.
Attaching themselves to black smokers, the worms have been found to thrive at temperatures of up to 80 °C (176 °F), making the Pompeii worm the most heat-tolerant complex animal known to science after the tardigrades (or water bears), which are able to survive temperatures over 150 °C.