Image credit: Purdue University 

Few creatures can survive in Mono Lake, California. It is three times as salty as the ocean, has a strongly alkaline pH of 10 and is laden with the poisonous element arsenic. However, eight species of nematodes have been found to be thriving in this extreme environment. Discovering the genetic drivers behind their survival ability could enable key advances in medicine and biotechnology.

Nematodes are very small worms, 0.1-2.5mm long, who are the most abundant type of animal on earth. Nematodes are extremophiles, meaning they can survive in condition which would be fatal to nearly all other species.

Most remarkable however, is the nematode’s resistance to arsenic, as they can survive at 500 times the dose that would kill a human. Arsenic contamination in drinking water is a serious public health crisis in many parts or the world, particularly in Bangladesh.

The team plans to sequence the whole genome of the nematodes to understand how it can be resistant to arsenic. The sequencing may give clues into how arsenic is treated and processed through the nematodes body, which could help scientists develop treatments for people suffering from arsenic poisoning through their drinking water.

The nematode could also allow advances in biotechnology. The genes that allow them to survive extreme conditions could be implanted into other species, such as bacteria. For example, by implanting a temperature resistant gene from nematodes into crops they could be able to cope better with the rising temperatures from climate change.

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