In nature, extremophiles consist of organisms that thrive in geochemically-extreme conditions. These creatures, plants, and microorganisms adapt to some of the Earth’s most extreme conditions, those that are typically detrimental to life.1 Some of these conditions include extreme pressure, heat, cold, dryness, salt, pH, and radiation. Extremophiles embody extremozymes, or unique enzymes that allow these organisms to survive in extreme environments. They respond to the environment with complex, protective mechanisms that allow them to survive in harsh conditions and repair their cellular and DNA damage. Due to the fact that extremophiles have developed highly effective, specific, and protective mechanisms, they have become a fascinating topic of research in the medical, pharmaceutical, and skin care industries.
"There are many different types of extremophiles and the environment they reside in generally characterizes their different species."
Scientists believe that life may have begun with extremophiles found in hydrothermal vents far under the Earth’s surface, in a habitat of extreme temperature and pressure.2 The biochemical structure of these extremophiles is so unique that scientists are proposing the addition of a sixth kingdom of classification of life called archaea. There are many different types of extremophiles and the environment they reside in generally characterizes their different species. Differing conditions result in a range of biological mechanisms that can overcome incredible environmental hurdles. The skin care industry is slowly finding ways to harness these unique extremophile properties and apply them to formulations in order to achieve results similar to those seen in nature. This research will allow the skin to better adapt to extreme environmental changes.
Environmental factors can have a profoundly negative effect on the health and beauty of the skin. Given the constantly-changing environment and an alarming increase in the average temperature of Earth’s climate, incorporating new mechanisms for skin protection, especially those that help the skin better adapt, are becoming a necessity. Various forms of environmental exposure can cause severe dehydration and sensitivities, alter structural proteins such as collagen and elastin, leading to signs of aging, loss of elasticity and resilience, decreased immune function, and even lower the cancer resistance of skin cells.
Extremophiles are ideal for use in the cosmetic industry given their incredible shelf life, high compatibility with cell metabolism, and the fact that they work with the skin’s natural functions to prevent damage caused by environmental factors.3
Ice Age Survivor
Saponaria pumila is a plant that survived the Ice Age from 200,000 B.C.E. to 10,000 B.C.E., during the last glacial period. At this time, large parts of the northern hemisphere were covered under gigantic sheets of ice, threatening mankind, animals, and 90 percent of all terrestrial life. While most of the flora and fauna completely disappeared, some extremophile Alpine plants survived on ice-free mountain peaks known as nunataks. The only surviving organisms quickly adapted to changing climates in the post-glacial times and recolonized the Alpine region. As a result of being constantly exposed to low temperatures and high amounts of ultraviolet radiation, Saponaria pumila developed protecting and repairing mechanisms that enabled it to adapt to its challenging environment. This extremophile plant, which features large pink flowers, can still be found in the Alps, where it is considered a protected species in some regions. Thanks to the unique harvesting technology that allows for the large-scale cultivation of cells from rare and endangered plant species, Mibelle, a Swiss ingredient manufacturer, was able to develop PhytoCellTec™ nunatak®, an extract of Saponaria pumila stem cells. This extract makes it possible to transfer the survival characteristics of Saponaria pumila to the human skin. PhytoCellTec nunatak was shown, in vitro, to efficiently protect dermal stem cells against ultraviolet-induced stress and maintain their stemness. Clinical studies confirmed the positive effect of the extract on the dermis as skin density, firmness, and elasticity was greatly improved after just one month. Furthermore, test results revealed that Saponaria pumila extract helped the skin to cope better with various forms of aggression.
Dry deserts provide another extreme environment for extremophiles to thrive in. Deserts are characterized by high temperatures and a severe lack of water. A naturally occurring saccharide, trehalose, resides in organisms that call this harsh environment home. Trehalose protects the organism while it is dehydrated and allows it to come back to life when water is present. The presence of this saccharide in many desert plants is what enables the barren desert to bloom with life after a rainfall. Trehalose is known to be a source of energy in a variety of living organisms and is widely distributed in nature. It resides in everything from bacteria, plants, fungi, insects, and invertebrates. Mushrooms, for example, contain 10 to 25 percent of this saccharide by weight. Its mechanism of action is not only to protect from loss of water, but also against freezing and osmotic pressure fluctuation. It builds a tolerance to harsh environments, allowing the organism to revive when relief essential for survival, such as water, finally comes along. Trehalose is extremely valuable as a skin care ingredient because its natural functions are put to use in helping to protect against skin damage caused by changing environmental conditions. It helps important proteins retain their structure in order to reduce cell damage, particularly in dryness, heat, and cold. Trehalose also protects skin fibroblasts from dehydration by replacing water and acting as a natural protective cellular moisturizer.
Deep Sea Treasure
One of the veterans of extremophile technology, Thermus thermophilus, lives deep in the sea under extreme pressure and heat in the Gulf of Mexico. This multipurpose ingredient comes in the form of a biotechnological ferment containing multifunctional and stable extremozymes. It acts as an antioxidant that inhibits reactive oxidative species and protects from damage caused by UVA and infrared radiation. Given the origin of the ingredient, it is not a surprise that these enzymes are activated by heat. As the temperature rises on the surface of the skin, the enzymes are triggered to scavenge free radicals. These mechanisms protect against lipid peroxidation and DNA oxidation, while boosting mitochondrial metabolism and benefiting fibroblasts and keratinocytes. They also increase moisture content and ceramide synthesis, improving the cutaneous skin barrier. Furthermore, clinical tests document the panelists’ perception of a five-year younger appearance after six months of using products containing Thermus thermophilus at
clinically-tested levels versus the placebo. This ingredient is considered to be, by far, one of the most complete active ingredients to effectively fight against photoaging. It truly represents a new generation of photoprotection based on ultraviolet and infrared radiation protection.
The Future of Extremophiles
New sources of extremophiles are constantly being found. Even some seemingly ordinary environments can offer surprising sources of extremophile-based technology for the skin. Salt-tolerant blue algae, for example, contain extremozymes that help them cope with a dehydrating environment and protect them from salty waters. Incorporating these extracts in skin care formulations results in moisturizing and anti-aging properties, improving the overall way skin copes with dry environments.
Extremophile enzymes are already being used in many molecular biology applications and animal genomics. The most widely-known application of an extremophile product in veterinary medicine uses enzymes obtained from thermophiles for diagnostics on an extensive range of animal pathogens. Many extremophile-based and sourced products may find application in veterinary sciences, medicine, and skin care in the future. These include enzymes in biosensors, compatible solutes in skin care products, drug excipients, treatments for respiratory disease, radioprotectants, peptide antibiotics, lipids for drug delivery, and anticancer therapeutics.
As the environment continues to change and evolve, so will the adaptive mechanics of creatures trying to survive it. Nature will continue to offer highly specific and effective extremozymes. As stress is triggered in the skin, the enzymatic activity will be initiated to promote protective actions.
By learning from nature’s adaptive ways of coping with the environment, the skin care industry can expand options in combating daily skin stressors as many, advanced mechanisms of extremozymes exhibit properties that the skin itself cannot perform. Incorporating these mechanisms into skin care products will allow the skin to adopt new and versatile defense systems to protect against environmental aggressors.
1. Rothschild, L.J. and Mancinelli, R.L. (2001). Life in extreme environments. Nature, 409(6823), 1092–1101.
2. NASA. (June 2003). Rover Launches Mars Exploration Press Kit
3. Golyshina, O.V. (2011). Environmental, Biogeographic, and Biochemical Patterns of Archaea of the Family Ferroplasmaceae. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 77(15), 5071-78.
Mia Hartmann, R&D Chemist at YG Laboratories, is a dedicated skin care developer, formulating high performance products. She applies a fresh, innovative perspective to the cutting edge technologies of the personal care industry. Hartmann is also a part of YG’s educational team dedicated to researching and educating clients, peers, and skin care professionals on ingredient technologies. She is also a devoted member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and strives to share her excitement for advances in high performance skin care.