Worm in alternating baths
According to a report in the last issue of Nature (February 5, 1998), the Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana) is the animal that can withstand the greatest heat. It is at home in the hydrothermal vents of the Pacific deep sea. Measurements by Craig Cary and his colleagues at the University of Delaware show that the eight-inch worms can withstand a temperature difference of more than 60°C on their bodies.
The worms live in tubes hanging from the sides of the hydrothermal vents. From these, highly heated water bubbles up to 300°C into the surrounding seawater, which has a temperature of only 2°C. The tentacles of the front ends of the worms hanging out of the tubes bathe in water at around 22°C. Their rear ends in the tubes must withstand temperatures in excess of 80°C.
How do you do it? The trick is in the bacteria. There are many types of bacteria that call hot springs and other environments with high temperatures up to 113°C home. It turns out that the Pompeii worm hosts a whole collection of bacteria that coat the worm's body - like the fur of a sheep. It's possible the worm couldn't handle the heat without its bacterial shield.
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