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Metal-Eating Microbe Wallows in Acid

How about a nice, refreshing swim—in battery acid?! Ok, so maybe this doesn’t sound like heaven to you, but it’s home-sweet-home for an archaeon that lives deep in an abandoned California mine.

This hardy bug is one example of the group of microbes called the archaea. While some archaeons live in normal conditions, many thrive in temperatures, acidity or pressure that would destroy most other forms of life.

The California mine archaeon gives off sulfuric acid (the kind of stuff that eats through metal), which mixes with copper, zinc and other metals in the mine to create an extremely nasty, corrosive brew. As the article notes, the researchers who discovered this microbe occasionally got acid burns when water in which the bug lives splashed onto their bare skin.

The archaeon "eats" iron and minerals and thrives at temperatures about 115° F (just think about how sweaty you get when the temperature rises above 90°). The abundance of these microbes in the mine and the amount of sulfuric acid they put out make the water in the mine the most acidic naturally occurring body of water in the world.

One interesting feature of this archaeon is that it doesn't have a cell wall, the hard outer coating common in archaea and bacteria. This is kind of surprising given the harsh conditions in which the microbe lives since you would think that a cell wall would provide an extra measure of protection and therefore be desirable for living in such extreme conditions.

Many more details about the archaea and some photos can be found on the archaea page.