New groups of bacteria discovered underground

The tree of life (Image courtesy Banfield Group)
The tree of life (Image courtesy Banfield Group)

An article published in the journal “Nature Communications” describes the diversity of the microbiome in the subsurface. A team of researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of Berkeley discovered it through the genetic analysis of more than 2,500 microbes found in samples of sediment and groundwater collected in Colorado. They revealed dozens of new branches of the tree of life.

The complexity of microbial life in the soil is poorly understood although it’s part of a biomass representing up to about one fifth of that total in the world. This means that scientists are continually discovering new species and their roles within their ecosystems. The ones found in the course of this research represent about 80% of bacterial phyla known but also others so different from the ones already known to have been classified into 47 totally new phyla.

The researchers have been conducting various experiments for years near the city of Rifle, Colorado, in order to stimulate the populations of microbes that are naturally present in very low quantities. Water samples from these experiments were sent to the Joint Genome Institute of the US Department of Energy for a genetic sequencing. This approach called metagenomics used exactly because prevents the loss of microbial diversity, unlike what happens when they’re grown in laboratory.

In the past there have been some studies focused on specific families of microorganisms, this time the goal was to obtain the genome of all the families of microbes present in the area in which the samples were taken. That also allows to reconstruct their metabolism and their roles within their ecosystems. Understanding the interactions among various organism is in the researchers’ opinion a key to understanding the biogeochemical cycles, meaning the paths followed by carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and hydrogen in the underground.

The diversity of the microorganisms discovered, which means among other things a considerable variety at the metabolic level, surprised the researchers, despite the fact that the team included scientists experienced in this type of research. Some of them were part of the team that discovered other 35 new phylum of bacteria, again in the site near Rifle, in a previous research which results were published in the journal “Nature” in June 2015. Some of them were also part of the team that studied microorganisms discovered in a variety of environments offering a broader vision of the tree of life in a research which results were published in the journal “Nature Microbiology”.

Those are research that are adding a lot of information about living organisms that exist today sometimes in great amounts but can be difficult to be detected and studied. The advances in genetic research now allow to discover amazing bodies and in recent years researchers have really been revolutionizing the tree of life.

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