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George Somero: Tracking how life survives under harshest conditions

STANFORD -- Beneath the steel-blue waters of Monterey Bay, the sea floor drops off suddenly into rugged canyonlands ­ as deep and awesome as the Grand Canyon itself. Strange sea creatures live in the frigid blackness; they thrive in dense clouds of sulfur that would be toxic to most forms of life.

This is George Somero territory ­ life at its extremes.

Somero joined Hopkins Marine Station last October as Stanford's first David and Lucile Packard Professor in Marine Science.

His friend Dennis Powers, director of Hopkins, says he has been trying for eight years to recruit Somero, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and former chair of marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The prestigious Packard chair may be one thing that at last convinced him to come, along with the chance to design his own laboratory in the new DeNault Family Research Building, which was dedicated in May.

And a chance to return to Monterey Bay was a major factor in Somero's decision. Not only the canyon in its depths but the tidepools on its shores contain some of the harshest conditions that living things endure.

At 55, with mild blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, Somero looks less like an adventurer than like the humanities professor he almost became: the philosopher of science who read The Death of Physics on his most recent plane trip.

But as a graduate student based at Hopkins in the 1960s, Somero spent 13 frozen months camped out at the U.S. naval base in Antarctica studying fish with icewater in their veins - and the course for his career was set.

For more than 30 years since, he has explored terrain where scientists thought animal and plant survival would be impossible - from frozen icepacks to scorching deserts to the bottoms of the seas.

In the process, he has become renowned as the father of the field of biochemical adaptation, the study of biochemical processes essential for life to adapt to harsh and changing conditions.

When bizarre life forms were found next to deep-sea volcanic vents near the Galapagos Islands, for example, it was Somero's research team that figured out how they manage to live. The creatures turned out to be a new form of life never imagined by scientists, a symbiosis between animals and the bacteria that they harbor in their cells, both drawing energy and sustenance from the sulfur that seeps out of volcanic magma.

"We are getting a sense of how evolution at the molecular level provides organisms with the ability to live in these different environments," Somero says.

Some of his discoveries may have medical uses one day. Perhaps more important, his work helps to explain why relatively small changes ­ a few degrees of global warming, for example - can displace some species from their natural habitats.

One answer lies in the cells of all living things, where small changes in the structures that do the cell's work make all the difference in an animal's ability to adapt.

"I think it's clear that the distribution patterns of organisms are strongly influenced, for example, by the temperature range in which their enzymes can work," Somero says. "We're trying to put some physiological and biochemical information into this whole picture of global change."

In addition to the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows joining this search, Somero welcomed three undergraduates into his lab at Hopkins Spring quarter for intensive research projects. He says the opportunity to work with undergraduates is on