Campus News

John Howland Writes First Book on Archaea: Microorganisms Able to Live in Boiling Water

Story posted December 06, 2000

A Bowdoin professor has written the first book about the organisms that make up the third category of life. Archaea, now a star of modern biology, weren’t even discovered until the 1970s, and John Howland is hoping to make more people aware of this group of microorganisms with amazing abilities.

Howland’s enthusiasm for Archaea led him to write The Surprising Archaea:Discovering Another Domain of Life (Oxford University Press,2000), which he hopes will inform a general audience of the Archaea ’s "rise from obscurity
to their current prominent place in molecular and evolutionary biology."

"[T]his book is a work of advocacy and, to be truthful, it is one with an even larger agenda than promoting Archaea, as marvelous as they may be. Thus, my hope is also to promote wider awareness of the rich world of microbes in general, a world that we tend to ignore until it crosses our path in the form of disease or other unpleasantness," Howland writes.

The Archaea were discovered in the late 1970s, when scientists running into problems classifying bacteria (which look remarkably alike) changed their mode of classification. Upon doing so, the scientists unexpectedly discovered a third category of life, when they had previously thought there were only two.

A few intriguing facts about the Archaea :

  • They can live in boiling water or environments with extremely high salt concentrations.
  • They live in humans and other animals, and their actions are a cause of flatulence
  • They seem to be remnants of a very early form of life, and are the most slowly evolving organisms on the earth.

The Archaea immediately intrigued some scientists. "When you find organisms that can live in boiling water
one wonders how they manage to do it," Howland says. But it took the scientific community at large a bit longer to show an interest.

Despite the seeming importance of this discovery (an entirely new category of life) the scientific community didn’t take much notice. While no one rose to refute the discovery, scientists remained largely silent on the issue for about a decade. But gradually the idea rose to prominence, and now even introductory textbooks show a tree of life with three branches. Inclusion in a textbook generally heralds wide acceptance of an idea, so the Archaea have at last arrived, but Howland wants more people to be aware of them.

Howland normally specializes in biochemistry and how organisms attain energy, but was interested in writing something for a general, rather than scholarly audience, and he decided the Archaea were the right topic. He aimed to write a book that could be read by anyone able to read an issue of Scientific American . As a result, he combines complex scientific explanations with witty asides and amusing examples to pique the interest and imagination of the layperson.

There is still much to be learned about these creatures, but they are now an important part of biological research into evolution and ecology, and scientists have already begun to explore commercial uses. The possibility for practical applications comes "because they’re so damned rugged," Howland says. Because of the Archaea’s ability to live in environments hostile to most forms of life, they could one day supply enzymes capable of working in the same conditions in which the organisms live.

An example Howland gives is the need for enzymes in detergents that can withstand high temperatures. It is possible that Archaea could be useful in cleaning everything from our laundry to heavy metal waste created in industrial work. Another possible application is use of the Archaea in pollution mediation.

But there is a purer reason to study the Archaea — for the knowledge they will bring about how they survive in seemingly hostile environments, and for the knowledge they will lead to about evolutionary history and the organisms that inhabited the earth long ago.

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