Sciency Words: Conan the Bacterium

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Meet Deinococus radiodurans, a species of bacteria found in truly unexpected locations all over the globe. It’s said to be the toughest bacterium in the world. It’s so tough that it’s earned the nickname Conan the Bacterium.


Don’t panic. Conan the Bacterium is nonpathogenic and does not represent a threat to humans.

Some microorganisms are referred to as extremophiles, because they’ve adapted to survive in some specific extreme environment. Conan is a polyextremophile, because it has adapted to survive in a wide variety of extreme environments. Among other things, Conan can endure:

  • Highly acidic environments
  • Airless environments
  • Waterless environments
  • Extremely cold environments
  • Extremely radioactive environments

Frankly, it sounds like this little bugger is perfectly adapted for life on Mars, but according to my reading, its genome suggests that it did in fact evolve here on Earth.

Conan’s resistance to radiation is of particular interest to science. It seems that whenever radiation damages Conan’s DNA, even if the DNA is shredded into tiny bits, Conan can stitch its DNA back together again in as little as twelve hours.

Lots of organisms, including humans, have some ability to repair their own damaged DNA. Conan is just a whole lot better at it than the rest of us, and no one’s sure why.

I first learned about Conan the Bacterium in a book called All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life. I’ll be doing a book review early next week.

8 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Conan the Bacterium

  1. “its DNA back together again in as little as twelve hours.”

    Wow, I hope somebody is studying that. Repairing DNA could have very widespread applications, from curing old age to fortifying astronauts to withstand the radiation exposure of deep space.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had much the same thought. My first idea was that we might someday engineer this ability into ourselves. That would be in the distant future, of course.

      Then it occurred to me that if we can identify D. radiodurans’s repair mechanism, maybe we could extract it and administer it to ourselves as a drug. This might just be my imagination running wild, but it seems like that could be doable in the near future.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Two developments make me think both might be closer than many realize.

        The first is CRISPR technology, which pretty much allows us to edit a genome at will. Many people are freaked out about this technology, but for better or worse, it’s arrived. Obviously an enormous amount of caution is warranted, but if there are genes for radiation resistance, splicing them into our genome might not be too far off.

        The second is what the Nobel prize in chemistry was just awarded for: the development of molecular machinery. This stuff is apparently getting closer to practical use. It’s not too hard to imagine such machinery repairing DNA damage to existing cells, kind of like a beneficial engineered virus.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve heard about CRISPR, though most of the details went right over my head. I didn’t really follow the Nobel prizes this year, so I guess I missed the news about molecular machinery. Sounds like I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks for the link. This sort of rings a bell for me. I think there was an article about this in Scientific American last month, or maybe the month before.


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