Researches Map the Genome of the 'Devil Worm' That Thrives In Extreme Heat

Researchers hope to shed light on why some creatures thrive in harsh, subterranean environments.
Donna Fuscaldo

The "Devil Worm" named for its ability to survive in harsh subterrane conditions, can now be studied further to figure out what makes it so resilient, thanks to researchers at American University. 

Researchers sequenced the genome of the "Devil Worm" which they think will provide clues as to how the organism not only adapts but thrives in environmental conditions that kill almost everything else. The researchers think what they learn can be applied to help humans deal with a planet that is increasingly warming. 


When you can't take the heat, evolve

"The Devil Worm can't run away; it's underground," said John Bracht, assistant professor of biology at American University who led the genome sequencing project in a press release announcing the work. "It has no choice but to adapt or die. We propose that when an animal cannot escape intense heat, it starts making additional copies of these two genes to survive."

More than ten years ago Gaetan Borgonie from the University of Ghent and Princeton University geoscientist Tullis Onstott discovered the microscopic "Devil Worm" while looking at subterrestrial bacterial communities in South Africa gold mines. They were blown away to find the worm thriving in an environment that was marked with high temperatures, high levels of methane and little oxygen. That discovery led to the work by the researchers at American University several years later. 

'Devil Worm' the first subterrestrial animal to be sequenced

The "Devil Worm" is the first subterrestrial animal to have its genome sequenced. The sequencing showed there is a larger number of heat shock protein than in other similar species whose genomes have been sequenced. What's more, many of the heat-shock proteins known as Hsp70 were copies of each other. 

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Bracht thinks the presence of copies of the gene means the worms adapt and evolve to the severe conditions.  Researchers hope that by studying the genome of the 'Devil Worm," they can come up with new ways to understand how life is possible beyond the confines of Earth. The research was published in journal Nature Communications

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