How Life Began

Microbes at the Extremes May Tell Us... They thrive on boiling heat, freezing cold, radiation and toxic chemicals--and they have triggered a revolution in biology

It's hard to imagine a more inhospitable place on earth than the hydrothermal vents that pepper the ocean floor. These cracks in the sea bottom spew water superheated by rising magma to as high as 750[degrees]F and contaminated with toxic substances such as hydrogen sulfide, cadmium, arsenic and lead. Yet despite these lethal conditions, life not only survives but thrives in the form of colonies of microbes that feed on poison and multiply in temperatures that could hard-boil an egg.

The frozen continent of Antarctica is almost equally deadly, but at the other end of the temperature scale. Drill into the...

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