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Thermophiles in Kamchatka

Roald Hoffmann

When Stefan Petrovich Krasheninnikov, a 24-year-old Russian student of science, first visited Kamchatka in 1737, he saw mountains that "for many years throw out a continual smoke, but flame only at times." He wrote, "the principal riches of Kamchatka consist in the great number of wild beasts: Among them are foxes, sables, stone foxes, hares, marmots, ermines, weasels, wolves, reindeer, wild and tame, and stone rams." Clearly his mind was on the furs precious to Russians and Chinese. That's why Empress Anne had sent him (actually she had sent some professors of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who opted to stay behind in Siberia and send their student on into the wild lands); this was the reason bands of unruly and rebellious Cossacks were dispatched to subdue the land, exacting tribute in furs from natives.

It did not take me four months to reach Kamchatka, as it did Krasheninnikov from nearby far-eastern Siberia. Only four hours on an aging jet of Reeve Aleutian Airlines from Anchorage. Distant from the Czarist and Soviet sources of power, this was never a rich part of Russia. It's a more than nine-hour flight from Moscow to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, situated on a beautiful natural harbor, which became (along with Vladivostok) a seat of Soviet military power and its main eastern submarine base. The harbor is filled with rusting, decomposing ships.

Like Krasheninnikov, I could not help seeing the volcanoes—it is hard to look up anywhere in Kamchatka and not see one in the landscape of the most seismically active place in the Pacific Rim of Fire. And I came to see life. Not fur-bearing mammals, but a microscopic, far older form of life, the thermophiles and extremophiles of the hydrothermal sources of Kamchatka.

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