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A hyperthermophile is an organism that thrives in extremely hot environments—from 60 °C (140 °F) upwards. An optimal temperature for the existence of hyperthermophiles is above 80 °C (176 °F). Hyperthermophiles are often within the domain Archaea, although some bacteria are able to tolerate temperatures of around 100 °C (212 °F), as well. Some bacteria can live at temperatures higher than 100 °C at large depths in sea where water does not boil because of high pressure. Many hyperthermophiles are also able to withstand other environmental extremes such as high acidity or high radiation levels. Hyperthermophiles are a subset of extremophiles.
Hyperthermophiles isolated from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park were first reported by Thomas D. Brock in 1965. Since then, more than 70 species have been established. The most hardy hyperthermophiles live on the superheated walls of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, requiring temperatures of at least 90 °C for survival. An extraordinary heat-tolerant hyperthermophile is Strain 121, which has been able to double its population during 24 hours in an autoclave at 121 °C (hence its name). The current record growth temperature is 122 °C, for Methanopyrus kandleri.
Although no hyperthermophile has shown to thrive at temperatures >122 °C, their existence is possible. Strain 121 survives 130 °C for two hours, but was not able to reproduce until it had been transferred into a fresh growth medium, at a relatively cooler 103 °C).
Early research into hyperthermophiles speculated that their genome could be characterized by high guanine-cytosine content; however, recent studies show that "there is no obvious correlation between the GC content of the genome and the optimal environmental growth temperature of the organism."
The protein molecules in the hyperthermophiles exhibit hyperthermostability—that is, they can maintain structural stability (and therefore function) at high temperatures. Such proteins are homologous to their functional analogues in organisms which thrive at lower temperatures, but have evolved to exhibit optimal function at much greater temperatures. Most of the low-temperature homologues of the hyperthermostable proteins would be denatured above 60 °C. Such hyperthermostable proteins are often commercially important, as chemical reactions proceed faster at high temperatures.