Thermophilic Archea

Steam illuminated by sunlight rises from the banks of a river
Archaea are the most extreme of all extremophiles, and some scientists think they have not changed much from their ancestors. Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin contains archaea.

NPS / Neal Herbert


Archaea are the most extreme of all extremophiles—some kinds live in the frigid environments of Antarctica, others live in the boiling acidic springs of Yellowstone. These single-celled organisms have no nucleus, but have a unique, tough outer cell wall. This tough wall contains molecules and enzymes that may keep acid out of the organism, allowing it to live in environments of pH 3 or less. (Vinegar, for example, has a pH of less than 3.) Archaea also have protective enzymes within their cells.

Some scientists think present-day archaea have not changed much from their ancestors. This may be due to the extreme environments in which they live, which would allow little chance for successful changes to occur. If this is so, modern archaea may not be much different from the original forms—and thus provide an important link with Earth’s earliest life forms.

Once thought to be bacteria, organisms in the domain Archaea actually may be more closely related to Eukarya—which includes plants and animals.

Many kinds of archaea live in the hydrothermal waters of Yellowstone. For example, Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin contains archaea. They are most well known in the superheated acidic features of Norris Geyser Basin and in the muddy roiling springs of the Mud Volcano area.

Whenever you see a hot, muddy, acidic spring, you are probably seeing the results of a thriving community of archaea called Sulfolobus. This is the archaea most often isolated and most well known by scientists. In sulfuric hydrothermal areas, it oxidizes hydrogen sulfide into sulfuric acid, which helps dissolve the rocks into mud. The Sulfolobus community in Congress Pool (Norris) is providing interesting new research directions for scientists: It is parasitized by viruses never before known on Earth.

A muddy pool at the bottom of an enbankment bubbles and steams
Archaea can be found in the Mud Volcano area, among other places in Yellowstone National Park.

NPS / Matt Poyner


Thermophilic Archea in Yellowstone

Domain Archaea
pH 0.9–9.8, upper temp.: 92°C (197.6°F)
Color: none
Metabolism: chemosynthesis, using hydrogen, sulfur, carbon dioxide
Form: unicellular, tough cell membrane
Location: In many of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features

Sulfolobus is the genus most often isolated
pH 0­­–4, 40–55°C (104–131°F)
Color: green
Metabolism: photosynthesis
Phylum: red algae
Location: Norris Geyser Basin, Lemonade Creek, Nymph Creek


Last updated: July 18, 2017

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