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A Roadmap for Stalking Extremophiles


From the interior of desert rocks to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, life has adapted to extraordinary environments. And yet many such species are threatened by human activities and changing climate. Today, the European Commission's international Coordination Action for Research on Life in Extreme Environments (CAREX) project launched its roadmap identifying the most important questions for extreme environment researchers to address. As research priorities, the report identified life's response to climate and environmental change, its adaptation methods, understanding biodiversity and interactions within extreme environments, and finding limits of habitability which could inform the search for extraterrestrial life. It also addressed some of the technical and infrastructure challenges involved in studying extreme environments.

CAREX was initiated by the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme in 2008 and funded for 3 years. The roadmap is a culmination of 3 years of work by over 600 scientists from 23 countries and will be presented to the European Science Foundation and funding agencies. Although CAREX's FP7 funding ends in July, the planning committee will hold at least one international conference addressing the roadmap's themes and is planning to involve more international partners in future projects, including NASA, NSF, and agencies in Brazil as well as within the European Union.

"Extreme environments are located everywhere around the world, by nature it's an international issue," says CAREX Project Manager M. Nicolas Walter, a space scientist with the European Science Foundation.

Mary Voytek, senior scientist for NASA's astrobiology program, praised the project and its roadmap as the first effort by the European Commission to mine its community of extreme environment researchers to identify the best topics to fund. The report's findings and priorities, she says, are not dissimilar to those identified by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. National Science Foundation, but the roadmap will be useful to these agencies as well.

"There's a heightened payoff scientifically of having different groups work together; everyone agrees on that," she says. A prime example is hydrothermal vents, which were originally discovered by geologists and then capitalized on by microbiologists, astrobiologists, geochemists, and a number of other disciplines. "No one group has claimed them for itself," Voytek says.

Perhaps as great of an achievement as the report itself, Walter says, was the collaboration that went into it, solidifying the European research community. He was surprised by how successful the meetings to form the reports were in increasing collaboration between over 600 scientists who worked on the project as researchers who study desert life and those who study ocean life realized that they shared common needs and goals. Global challenges such as climate change, the impact of biodiversity loss, and the search for extraterrestrial life cross multiple disciplines, as do the infrastructural and technical challenges of studying life in extreme environments, Walter says.