When scientists first uncovered Herminiimonas glaciei, they knew they were already looking at something unique. The organism was cut off from all known life on Earth for over 120,000 years encapsulated in a layer of glacial ice. When the organism was brought back to labs to be studied, the scientists involved quickly realized they were making history – and possibly opening a window in on another world. It is also extremely resistant to a number of antibiotics.
The organism is unlike anything seen in more temperate zones. The extremophile looks like an alien creature under a microscope. A central core body is surrounded by an irregular number of long flailing tubile arms that wave and grab around it, helping it to swim and latch onto other organisms. When they were first discovered by the team led by Loveland-Curtze from Pennsylvania State University, the sample was retrieved from ice that was over 3,000 meters deep in Greenland. After being transported, it took an estimated seven months without oxygen in near freezing environments to bring them back from their cryogenic sleep.
Is this what life might look like on other worlds? Scientists have speculated for years that planets such as Mars may have at one time been host to warm even humid atmospheres but eventually lost their heat and sustainability after millions of years. But if something like Herminiimonas glaciei can survive in freezing sheets of ice on Earth for 120,000 years, why couldn’t similar or even completely different organisms survive in the frozen ice of Mars or Europa? Extremophiles such as these have been studied for years, and in that time the possibility of life surviving hostile environments has expanded significantly.
Once upon a time it was considered impossible for a creature to survive in the harsh vacuum of space, but it was only in 2007 that the first tardigrades were finally launched out into the void of space where they survived after going into a state of cryptobiosis. Cryptobiosis, as it is called, is the process by which an organism loses all of its metabolic functions and essentially goes into a state of stasis – effectively freezing itself with a form of temporary “death.”
By looking at these creatures in space, we may eventually get a feel for what species on other planets might look like – and how they might survive even in the harshest environments. A planet that once hosted life may still host some remnants of that life. What was once thought the realm of science fiction is now a very real possibility thanks to research of these obscure and bizarre organisms.
And it’s not just cold that these extremophiles may survive in. Tardigrades alone are able to survive in acid, boiling water, the vacuum of space, being frozen in a block of ice, living in normal temperatures, and all but being actually lit on fire. And that’s just one organism from Earth. There’s no telling what else may be out there waiting to be uncovered.