What The Bugs Can Do For You

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The discovery that life can thrive under horrific conditions is a major scientific advance. But it could also turn out to be hugely profitable. Extremophiles survive by manufacturing all sorts of novel molecules. Some digest harsh chemicals; some protect DNA against destruction by radiation; some stave off searing heat or freezing cold. Entrepreneurs are racing to turn these molecules into products, just as was done in the 1980s with Thermus aquaticus, the Yellowstone bug exploited in the PCR technique widely used today to analyze DNA.

San Diego-based Diversa Corp. is one of the most active prospectors. The company has searched for useful microbes at geothermal and hydrothermal vents, in acidic soils and alkaline springs, in marine sediments, at industrial sites and all over Antarctica, among other places. "Eventually," says Diversa CEO Jay Short, "we want to sample every portion of the globe." Any profits will be shared with the country of origin.

The company already has several extremophile-derived products on the market and plans to launch five more this year. One is an enzyme from a deep-ocean-vent bacterium that improves the synthesis of high-fructose corn syrup (used as a sweetener in soft drinks). Another will be used in genetic research. Yet another will make animal feed more nutritious.

Diversa has 14 more products in the pipeline that it hopes could be used for everything from manufacturing pulp and paper to processing food, generating biofuel and synthesizing drugs. While most of the activity thus far has been focused on the enzymes the microbes churn out, the bugs themselves are also being eyed for commercial exploitation.

And this is just one company. Extremophiles have already rewritten biology textbooks; they may soon be rewriting profit statements as well.

--By Andrea Dorfman and Michael D. Lemonick