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News Release

July 27, 2006

Discovery May Provide Clues to Origins of Life

A new microbe that may hold clues to the origins of life on a harsh, young Earth has been discovered by an international team of scientists including a University of Guelph microbiologist.

Besides opening a window on the beginnings of life on Earth and the search for life on other planets, the researchers have found that primitive organisms thriving in extremely hot, acidic conditions may be important players in cycling crucial elements such as sulphur and iron at deep-sea vents.

A paper describing the new organism was published today in Nature. One of the authors is Guelph Prof. Terry Beveridge, holder of the Canada Research Chair in the Structure, Physical Nature and Geobiology of Prokaryotes.

The new microbe belongs to a group of single-celled, bacteria-like organisms called archaea that often live in extreme environments.

It’s the first acid-loving archaeon found around deep-sea hydrothermal vents, or so-called black smokers. Superheated water (about 400C) emitted from the vents mixes with ordinary sea water and releases minerals that support organisms able to “breathe” sulphur or metals instead of oxygen. Those conditions are believed to resemble those that nurtured the first life forms on Earth about 3.6 billion years ago.

“We’ve suspected that microbes there resist strong acids and high temperature but no one has been able to isolate one,” said Beveridge. The new microbes may also help people learn more about how microorganisms and other forms of life have affected the development of the planet by cycling its elements, he said.

An internationally recognized expert in advanced microscopy, Beveridge used a suite of sophisticated instruments to analyze the microbe’s structure, a key step toward learning how it lives. “ Guelph is now a centre for doing structural analysis in microbiology,” he said.

Robotic submersibles were used to collect samples from ocean vents.

The research team was led by Anna-Louise Reysenbach, a professor of microbial biology at Portland State University and a longtime research collaborator with Beveridge. “At deep-sea vents, we’ve never found an organism that can grow in acidic environments like organisms you find at terrestrial hot springs,” she said. “This discovery shows these organisms are endemic to deep-sea vents.”

Beveridge added studying how these organisms live around thermal vents may yield ideas for improvements in high-temperature industrial processes or development of new materials for harsh environments.

Prof. Terry Beveridge
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
519 824-4120, Ext. 53366

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