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Unexpected Life In a Bizarre Place

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WANTED: a home with superhot temperatures and toxic-chemical emissions.

Eeew! Who would want to live there? Well, it's the habitat of choice for one of the ocean's most bizarre inhabitants: hydrothermal vent worms.

The worms live 8,500 to 10,000 feet deep in the ocean in places where superheated water and chemicals shoot out of cracks in the earth's surface.

Bob Feldman is a senior scientist at Diversa Corp. in San Diego. His company collects bacteria that live in extreme conditions. He says the deep-sea worms live on different substances than land creatures do.

"Everything above land depends on sunlight for its energy," Dr. Feldman says. But the vent worms devour chemicals and bask in heat that would be fatal to land animals.

The worms are proving that life can thrive under conditions once thought impossible. That makes scientists think again about life on places like Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

There are different types of worms, but the Alvinellids win the prize. They grow to be only a few inches long, but can withstand 176 degree-F. temperatures, hotter than any other creature can. They live in and around large colonies. "They're very slim, fuzzy, flattened-out worms. Really hairy," Feldman says.

The tube colonies are several feet across and several feet high. Feldman describes them as "slimy" and "smelly, like rotten eggs." The smell is from the sulfur coming out of the vents.

"[Around the vents] It's like an oasis of life - little patchy islands of life," says Feldman.

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