What is the Pompeii Worm?

Over 20 years after marine biologist first discovered hydrothermal vents another discovery was made, close to the Galápagos Islands at hydrothermal vents, an organism was found withstanding higher temperatures than any other known species could endure. It is known as the Pompeii worm. This Polychaete, Alivinella pompejana wasn’t in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. But if the city was found deep underwater then this worm may have been able to survive the extreme conditions. It is classed as a polyextremophile which is an organism that can survive two or more extreme environmental conditions. The Pompeii worm is a deep sea Polychaete and is only found at hydrothermal vents which can be classed as a fissure in the sea floor normally located between plates. Water which has been heated by the magma underneath the plate flows through the vent and contains dissolved minerals, this water can reach temperatures of 400°C.

 

Alvinella pompejana

Chillin’ With Bacteria

Alvinella pompejana builds it’s tube with heat resistant material, over a smoker on a hydrothermal vent. Colonies can be seen to cover the entire smoker making the tubes act like a chimney. Due to the positioning of the tubes the worms back is exposed to much higher temperatures than its head, which hangs at the opposite end to the vent. Since the temperatures over the vent can reach such high levels more protection from heat is needed at the back end of the worm. This is where the Pompeii worm’s friend Nautilla profundicola gets involved, a epibiotic bacteria which colonise look like hair on the back of the worm. This layer acts as protection in the form of insulation for the worm. the bacteria contains eurythermal enzymes, which protect against various temperatures. The bacteria Nautilla profundicola doesn’t do this for free. Instead the two form a symbiotic relation which see’s the Pompeii worm secretes a mucus which is eaten by the bacteria. This allows the bacteria to thrive and the insulating layer on the back of the worm can reach 1cm of thickness. It doesn’t end there, the bacteria also detoxifies the water around the worm.

Don’t Forget The Pressure

The Pompeii worm has been withstanding this heat in the deep sea, meaning it also faces extreme pressure. it’s ability to survive at either let alone both is incredible and might make the worm the hardest extremophile known.

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