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The Remarkable Biodiversity of Our Most Extreme Natural Environments

Most of us are familiar with the Tree of Life, a metaphorical giant with its roots in the primordial muck and its leaves representing the incredible biodiversity we see today: butterflies and beetles, polar bears and buffalo, orchids and ferns. That image is beautiful but wrong, for the real Tree of Life is a seething mass of bacteria. Bacteria appeared on Earth 3 billion years before the first multicellular organisms, and during those 3 billion years were evolving ever newer and more inventive ways of survival. They adapted to grow in habitats of extreme heat, cold, salt, acidity, and toxicity. Unfortunately, less than 0.1% of all bacterial species can be grown in a laboratory, and so are very difficult to study. In the same way that most matter and energy in our Universe is called Dark Matter (we know it must be there, but we don’t know its true form), most of the Tree of Life has therefore now been dubbed “Microbial Dark Matter”. Uncovering this microbial dark matter is a new frontier of biodiversity research. In this talk I will describe some of the bacteria that live in extreme habitats such as hot springs, and describe how we use DNA-based techniques to understand what they do.

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