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Life in Extremis

Lawrence Bush
June 10, 2017

E. Imre Friedmann, a refugee from the Holocaust whose investigations of life in extreme conditions will likely have enduring impact as humankind investigates the solar system, died at 86 on this date in 2007. A biologist, Friedmann was a professor at Florida State University and the NASA Ames Research Center, and directed the Polar Desert Research Center. He conducted fieldwork in the Ross desert of Antartica, Ellesmere Island in the Arctic, the Negev and Gobi deserts, and in Chile’s Atacama desert, which, says a website about his work, “is so dry that in some parts no rain has ever been recorded.” “Organisms in extreme environments,” he wrote, “are adapted to the conditions of their surroundings, such as low or high temperatures and high salinity, but physiological adaptation has its limits, and in some environments on Earth, conditions are beyond these limits. Such ‘absolute extreme’ environments are not lifeless but are inhabited by organisms living ‘on the edge’ near the absolute limits of their physiological potential. Under these conditions, even a slight deterioration in the environment may result in death and extinction.” To see him in Antartica, look below.

“This research is directly relevant to astrobiology, the study of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Specifically, extreme cold and dry environments . . . are the closest terrestrial analogs to conditions on early Mars” and “yields important information for the reconstruction of events that may have led to the extinction of life on early Mars, as well as for design of life-detection methods for use on Mars.” --E. Imre Friedman

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.