An extremophile is an organism that is able to survive and thrive in the harshest of conditions. Though extremophiles are typically studied at the microbial level, humans who climb mountains, ski polar icecaps, sail oceans, explore subterranean caves and travel into space all fit the extremophile label. In undertaking such challenges, these human extremophiles, much like their microscopic contemporaries, must adapt to and cope with significant physical demands, including severe hot and cold temperature, high and low air pressure, treacherous terrain and distorted light-dark cycles.

Interestingly, and in keeping with our evolved intellectual capacity, humans in extremes also have to contend with intense psychological and social experiences. These include emotions such as fear and anxiety, issues around information uncertainty, sensory deprivation and circadian rhythm desynchronisation, and the paradox of being isolated from primary social networks while experiencing enforced closeness with others. Understanding the function of human extremophiles and how they survive and thrive in the face of such extreme physical, psychological and social demands is worthwhile. What we learn from them will help us tackle major societal challenges and ensure our species’ advancement and long-term survival.

Knowledge of how human extremophiles adapt, cope and behave under extreme stress can be used to equip pioneers and protectors with the skills needed to survive, thrive and successfully complete their work. Consider the scientists deployed to remote Arctic and Antarctic research bases, anti-poaching wildlife rangers stationed in the jungles of India and Sub-Saharan Africa and humanitarian aid workers in war-torn Syria and Yemen. In their efforts to understand climate change, preserve planetary biodiversity and deliver care to the world’s most vulnerable citizens, these groups are, unavoidably, exposed to extreme conditions. Ultimately, supporting these people to be successful is beneficial to us all.

Further afield, what we learn from extremophiles might be used to propel human beings on our most daring adventure yet, a mission beyond low Earth orbit and outward to the stars. Advancing to Mars, Jupiter and further into our solar system will expose the chosen star sailors to intense physical, psychological and social demands; demands that only the extremophile will be able to withstand. It should come as no surprise that space agencies are currently studying humans in the deepest, highest and farthest flung regions on Earth to learn how to sustain and support life on hazardous interplanetary voyages.

Although understanding the human extremophile has payback that may be realised in our lifetime, it is the 100-year gain that may be most beneficial to our species. As we navigate our way through the Anthropocene, we are faced with a dawning realisation that the world we inhabit and the economic and political systems we have created are not sustainable. An expanding global population, a squeeze on natural resources and the threat of irreversible climate change are going to transform our Earth view as we know it. Beyond the isolated extreme weather events that are already happening, large swathes of land are going to enter the realm of the unliveable. But perhaps not for the extremophile.

To avoid substantial loss of life, and possible extinction, our species has two options: adapt to a changing world and/or explore opportunities as an interplanetary species. It is reasonable to predict that both would require a re-evolution and large-scale normative transition towards human as extremophile. This is a re-evolution, as our ancestors were once adept at surviving extreme conditions. It is no regression, though, as technological innovations create the opportunity for both mass education and new adaptations not available to those that came before. Cutting-edge data science techniques are currently being applied to optimise the resilience and health of people in extremes. Research has recently identified genetic and biological markers critical to performing in extreme conditions. New studies are examining how human-machine augmentation may help individuals survive and thrive in austere and low-resource settings. As we tiptoe into the future, it is these scientific advances that will create opportunities to accelerate our transition to human as extremophile. As a species, facilitating this adaptation is necessary for our survival and to ready us for what lies ahead.

Dr Nathan Smith

Based at The University of Manchester, Dr Nathan Smith is a researcher specialising in the psychology of performance and health in extreme and high-risk environments.

The evolution of the human extremophile

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