They live--thrive, even--in boiling water! They feed on sulfur or hydrogen. They could be from one of the moons of Jupiter. In fact, their existence here on Earth has led scientists to realize that planets they hitherto assumed to be lifeless might support life. These thermophilic, or heat- loving, microbes--Archaea--are attracting a small but growing cadre of researchers and serious research funding from the United States government.

The discovery in the 1970s--and subsequent molecular studies--of Archaea (also known as archaebacteria) led University of Illinois microbiologist Carl Woese and colleagues to propose a total overhaul of how organisms should be classified (C.R. Woese et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 87:4576-9, 1990).

The archaebacteria were found, on a molecular level, to be at least as different from bacteria as they are from eukaryotes (life-forms with distinct nuclei). Furthermore, the differences...

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