How we found rarer microbes than a ticket to the moon

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Legendrea loyezae, a very rare ciliate that lives in the oxygen-free sediments of lakes James Weiss, Author provided

You are more likely to take a trip to the moon than to see a microbe called Legendrea loyezae under the microscope. NASA’s Apollo program sent a total of 24 people to the moon between 1968 and 1972. Only four people (including us) have ever found Legendrea loyezae from its discovery in 1908 to our recently published study.

Considering the expense, it makes sense that the number of people who have traveled to the moon is low. But peering into the microscopic realm doesn’t require a billion dollar budget, just a microscope and someone willing to sit in front of it.

Our recent study discovered 20 new species of microbes and 100 rare species. Each DNA sample we find provides another piece of the evolution puzzle. Scientists can use this puzzle to analyze how an organism works. For example, some genes suggest how a being breathes. Or it can provide information on the organism’s place on the tree of life.

The reason so few scientists have seen these microbes is because subsampling is a major problem. This means that most research teams only take samples from a few or even just one place.

Our most recent investigation, which lasted two years, involved the collection and investigation of over 1,000 samples. From lakes and ponds in Warsaw, Poland, to marine sediments in the North Sea and the Mediterranean off the coasts of Italy and Portugal, to chalk streams in Dorset, UK, we’ve been looking for microbes. And it paid off: we found more than 500 species, including rare and new ones.

Microbiology is human history

Early life on Earth appeared in water as creatures too small to be seen by the human eye and remained so for billions of years. Microbes live around us. They can be found in any habitat, from puddles to oceans. But there is still so much we don’t know about them. Some of these microscopic organisms evolved from simple beings to more complex beings, eventually giving rise to all visible life around us. Others just changed and kept their tiny size.

Microorganisms were the first predators on Earth, and their greedy appetites drove the evolution of more complex life forms in the early epochs of Earth’s history. After the evolution of complex life, microbes became the main food source for other creatures such as krill and plankton, which in turn are food for larger species. If the organisms at the base of the food chain disappeared, all other parts above them would also collapse.

The timing is so long that it is difficult to understand. If we reduce the Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history into just one year, life would exist on a microscopic scale until the end of October. Humans would appear in the last 30 minutes of the year and we would be aware of the existence of microbes only less than three seconds before the new year.

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The tree of life shows how organisms are related to each other. Looking at it, you can see that most of life on Earth is still small-scale, with animals, plants and fungi limited to a small group of branches within the eukary group. Unlike the other two groups, archaea and bacteria, eukarya members store their DNA in the cell nucleus.

A microscopic rarity

Legendrea loyezae it is in the ciliated branch of eukarya. Oxygen is lethal Legendrea loyezae and has tentacles that stretch and contract to capture prey. Scientists have discovered thousands of ciliated species.

Ciliates live in aquatic environments, thin veils of water in the soil and even in places where there is no oxygen. Although their life depends on water, they can form protective structures to stay dormant until they get wet again. They are composed of a single cell and yet they are wonderfully different. Ciliates have interesting hunting strategies: some types specialize in eating filaments of cyanobacteria, which they suck like spaghetti. They can swim. Others have a sedentary lifestyle, including Vorticellawhich has a stem to attach to submerged surfaces.

Some ciliated species form permanent physical relationships with other groups of organisms, something known as symbiosis. For example, they can harbor green algae inside themselves to eat the sugar that algae produce through photosynthesis. In return, they protect the algae from viruses and larger algae (yes, algae can also contract viral infections).

Some ciliated species live in densely populated communities, especially in well-oxygenated environments. But others live in so few numbers that finding them is like looking for a thousand needles in a haystack the size of Everest.

Our goal is to find as many of these rare and unusual species as possible. We use our knowledge of species ecology as clues. If we know that a microbe prefers to live in dark, oxygen-free habitats, we don’t look for it on the surface of the water where there is an abundance of oxygen and light. It took thousands of hours looking through a microscope to find four Legendrea loyezaenot to mention a small fortune in physiotherapy for our crooked necks and sore backs.

Why microbes matter

It is easy to feel detached from invisible microbes. Most of us will never be able to see one magnified enough for our vision to recover. But learning about microbes has helped inform some of history’s most important scientific discoveries. Microbes come to life as they inflict disease on animals and plants and develop huge blooms in the sea that wipe out aquaculture farms.

But we couldn’t live without them. Microbes are responsible for the survival of our ecosystems and their recovery after damage such as pollution or climate change. We cannot grow food without microorganisms. They clean our wastewater. Some can produce antibiotics and other drugs, others are involved in food production.

So exploring the microbial world is worth the back pain.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversation

The conversation

Genoveva Esteban receives funding from the European Union and other funding organizations. You work for Bournemouth University.

James Weiss does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that could benefit from this article and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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