Extreme Armor

Would you wear a sugar-coated bathing suit in a hot tub?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Most living things wouldn’t survive a dip into a volcanic hot spring. The water is nearly boiling and super acidic! But somehow, single-celled creatures called Sulfolobus islandicus thrive there! How?

University of Virginia researcher Edward Egelman took a closer look. S. islandicus has many tiny filaments, like whiskers, sticking out of its body. Egelman and colleagues wanted to dissect these whiskers to find out what protects them from extreme hot tub conditions.

Egelman used a powerful microscope and computer modeling to analyze the three-D structure of the filaments. What did he learn?

Amazingly, these whiskers are covered in SUGAR! No, not the kind in your donut. These sugars, called glycans, stabilize structures. Extreme temperatures or acids normally break apart chemical bonds. But these sugar-coated whiskers have so much support that they are safe!

Understanding S. islandicus armor could help us make stronger, heat-resistant materials.

So, stepping into that volcanic hot spring? Don’t worry – just sugar-coat it!