March 1, 2006 Extremophiles are microbes that have adapted to extreme environments, such as Utah's Great Salt Lake. But new microorganisms can be found in everyday places, and scientists are showing school kids how to discover and name their own new species.
MOFFETT FIELD, Calif.--Thanks to advances in computer technology and DNA testing, scientists are identifying new species faster than ever. There are literally millions and millions of animals, plants and other living creatures all around us.
Elin Kelsey, a science writer, says, "Scientists are discovering more new species today than at any other time in history."
Among the latest discoveries are tiny microorganisms. Hundreds fit on the head of a pin, yet they're tough enough to survive in Utah's Great Salt Lake. "They've all figured out how to be able to survive in very high salt," says Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
"It's so salty; it's 10-times saltier than the sea," Kelsey tells DBIS. This new organism is an extremophile, which means it likes to live in extreme environments.
Kelsey wants kids to learn about the new species that micro- and astrobiologists are discovering and to get involved. "I hope they really take away the wonder of the world, you know, that there are so many places in which life can exist and does exist," she says.
Kelsey shows kids how to find new species using things they have a home. "It really just stretches the idea of where life can exist on Earth and where life could exist, perhaps, in the universe."
Kids are being asked to come up with a name for the new species and submit it to become part of scientific history. "The idea that kids, themselves, might be able to name something and have that name go on in perpetuity for a real living organism -- a newly discovered species -- that's very spectacular," Kelsey says.
So does this look like a Charlie? Fluffy? Rover? How about Frosty? If you have a good name, send it in!
So far, the names of rock stars have topped the list of names submitted. Kids between ages 7 and 15 can submit their ideas by logging onto www.mapletreepress.com. The deadline for entries is March 31. The winner will be announced on Earth Day, which is April 22. Elin Kelsey has written a new kids book, "Strange New Species."
BACKGROUND: Scientists have discovered a new species of microbe living in Utah's Great Salt Lake. There is a contest for children to name this new species being held in conjunction with the release of a new children's book called Strange New Species. The deadline for submission is March 31, and the winner will be announced on Earth Day, April 22, 2006.
ABOUT THE SPECIES: The new species is part of a group of organisms called extremophiles because of they can survive in extreme environments that would kill a human being in mere seconds: extreme heat or cold, for example. The new organism is classified as a "halophile," or salt-loving micro-organism, because it thrives in water that is ten times saltier than the sea. The new microbe is rod-shaped and orange-red in color, and measures only 1.5 microns long. (A hundred of these microbes could fit on the head of a pin.) Among its most interesting features is its abundance of carotenoid pigments, which makes it completely resistant to damaging UV rays from the sun. Studying the microbe's unique properties could lead to new ways to protect humans from UV damage.
KINGS PLAY CHESS ON FAT GUYS' STOMACHS -- HOW SCIENTISTS CLASSIFY ANIMALS: Taxonomy is the scientific classification of organisms according to a hierarchy: from kingdom, phylum or division, to class, order, family, genus and species. Take the first letters of each of those categories in order and you get a silly phrase that may help you remember the classification levels. A genus is a category that can contain several different species. A species is a group of organisms with a unique set of characteristics (body shape and behavior, for example) that distinguishes them from other organisms. In a scientific name, the first word is the genus name, while the second word denotes the species. For instance, the newly discovered microbe belongs to the Halorubrum ("salt red") genus; its species name will be determined by the contest. Some 1.7 million species have been identified on earth, but scientists believe the total number is between 5 million and 10 million. Scientists discover thousands of new species every year, but many more need to be discovered and named.
The American Society for Microbiology contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.