Extreme Biology

By Goff, Karen Goldberg | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Extreme Biology


Goff, Karen Goldberg, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The hardest-to-find microbes might yield big clues in the battle to fight infection and disease.

That is why microbiologist Hazel Barton is rappelling down a 300-foot cliff in the Arizona desert, shivering in an ice cave on Greenland and scuba diving through underwater caves in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Ms. Barton is one of the stars of "Journey Into Amazing Caves," an Imax movie that opened recently at the Johnson Imax Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

In the movie, Ms. Barton, along with fellow caver Nancy Aulenbach, combines her vocation, science, with her avocation, caving, in a beautifully shot adventure on three continents.

"This was a very technically difficult movie," says Ms. Aulenbach, a teacher in Norcross, Ga. "We were going into places that were unknown."

Once in the unexplored caves, Ms. Aulenbach, 29, used her caving experience to survey the area so she eventually could make a map for other cavers. Ms. Barton, also 29, captured soil, water and ice samples to study extremophiles - organisms that live in extremely hostile conditions.

"Extremophiles have vast scientific potential," says Ms. Barton, who is primarily a tuberculosis re-searcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Trying to find unique organisms could hold the key to antibiotic research. The problem with today's antibiotics is that 90 percent of them are from organisms that are so similar to everything else. Now we have drug-resistant TB, and superbugs are going to be a reality."

By obtaining samples of life in the 112-degree Arizona desert, inside a solid wall of ice or from an underwater cave with virtually no light, scientists can see how microorganisms have adapted to survive, she says.

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