PARIS—Extremophiles thrive in the bubbling acidic springs of Yellowstone, in ocean beds miles below the sea surface, and in the radioactive pools of nuclear power plants. They flourish in places so hostile that any other living being would be crushed, dissolved, or melted within seconds. These tiny organisms were discovered during the second half of the 20th century, and today they happen to be Patrick Forterre’s passion. Professor Forterre works at the Pasteur Institute, named after Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French scientist who fathered what we now call microbiology and who discovered, among other breakthroughs, the vaccines for anthrax and rabies and the pasteurization process.

For any normal human being, walking through the Pasteur Institute’s corridors is a frightening experience. Women and men in lab coats chat mindlessly while holding white polystyrene boxes at arm’s length. It is easy to...

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