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Archaea are considered ancient organisms but are still poorly understood life forms.

They have
characteristics in common with the two domains of life bacteria and eukaryotes, the group that
includes all other life forms. Like bacteria, archaea have no nucleus but archaeal proteins are
often much more similar to those of eukaryotes. After much debate throughout the 20th century
as to whether archaea should be classified with bacteria or eukaryotes, they now form their very
own domain in the tree of life.

Until recently, it was also thought that most

archaea were extremophiles, thriving in
environments with extremes of temperature,
acidity, heavy metals, salinity, nuclear
radiation, or availability of water or nutrients. It
was only nine years ago that the first non-
extremophilic, aerobic archaeon was cultivated
from a marine sample. Similarly, N. viennensis
was discovered in soil from the gardens of the
Faculty of Ecology at the University of Vienna:
a decidedly moderate environment.

N. viennensis and its relatives are interesting in another respect: they perform a chemical
reaction called ammonia oxidation, transforming ammonia (NH3) and producing nitrite (NO2).
This is a vital step in the global nitrogen cycle, which ensures that nitrogen is transformed into
compounds more easily accessible to plants. Until 2005, when the marine archaeon
Nitrosopumilus maritimus was isolated and found to oxidise ammonia, the consensus was that
only bacteria could oxidise ammonia. N. viennensis has become the first ammonia-oxidising
archaeon ever isolated from soil in pure culture.

The isolation and production of a pure culture of N. viennensis was groundbreaking as ammonia-
oxidising organisms are notoriously difficult to cultivate. Although the genetic material of
microbes can be detected and analysed in their natural environment, it is much more difficult to
understand their functioning in this manner, let alone characterise a new species. As such, the
work of a former postdoc at the faculty proved invaluable: Dr Maria Tourna used soil samples
from a variety of environments and started cultures under various environmental conditions to
look for ammonia-oxidising archaea. N. viennensis was the crowning result.

In the marine environment, neutrophilic ammonia-oxidising archaea such as N. maritimus

contribute very significantly to the global nitrogen cycle simply because there are so many of
them: in some parts of the ocean, ammonia-oxidising archaea make up nearly 40% of
picoplankton (the smallest non-virus ocean organisms). Dr Stieglmeier also estimates that
ammonia-oxidising archaea such as N. viennensis may make up as much as 1% of the total
microbiota in soil. By isolating the first such species, she has made an important step forward
towards finding out more about their metabolism, and their potential contribution of greenhouse
gases such as nitrous oxide to the atmosphere.

It is not certain whether N. viennensis will prove to play a major role in ammonia oxidation in
soil other, as yet uncultivated archaeal species may be more numerous and make bigger
contributions. Nevertheless, the isolation and classification of this archaeon has made an
enormous contribution to archaeal taxonomy and to our understanding of what organisms
contribute to the global nitrogen cycle.


Stieglmeier, M., Klingl, A., Alves, R. J., Simon, K. M. R., Melcher, M., Leisch, N., & Schleper,
C. (2014). Nitrososphaera viennensis sp. nov., an aerobic and mesophilic ammonia-oxidizing
archaeon from soil and member of the archaeal phylum Thaumarchaeota. International Journal
of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, 64(8), 2738-2752.

Bacteria at Hydrothermal Vents

Tiny, single-celled bacteria comprise most life on this planet, yet we have discovered only about
five percent of its diversity. We know even less about bacteria thriving at deep-sea hydrothermal

Microbiologist Anna-Louise Reysenbach takes a bacterial sample from a hot spring in

Yellowstone National Park. She researches thermophiles in Yellowstones hot springs as well as
at hydrothermal vent sites found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Photograph: O.
Louis Mazzatenta.

Bacteria at hydrothermal vents inhabit almost everything: rocks, the seafloor, even the inside of
animals like mussels. All are living under extreme pressure and temperature changes. Perhaps
the oddest and toughest bacteria at vents are the heat-loving thermophiles. Temperatures well
above 662F (350C) are not uncommon at vents. The world record; for life growing at high
temperatures is 235F (113C), a record held by a type of thermophile known as a
hyperthermophile. These themophiles grow best above 176F (80C).

Many thermophiles have a simple diet, based solely on the metals, gases and minerals that
comprise the hydrothermal vent fluid. For example, on Knorr we are growing thermophiles
collected from vent sites in the Indian Ocean that require only sulfur, hydrogen and carbon

This is a microscopic view of a bacterial community from a hot spring in the Azores, an island in
the Atlantic Ocean. Notice all the sizes and shapes of the bacteria, yet none of them have names
because none of them have been identified. Scale bar is 1 m (1/1000 of a mm). Photograph:
Paula Aguilar.

This shows a cross-section view of a thermophile. Notice all the viruses in the cell. Viruses are
much smaller than bacteria and are abundant at deep-sea vents. Photograph: Terry Beveridge.
Thermophiles may assist in creating terraced rock structures like these, located at Mammoth Hot
Springs, Yellowstone National Park, USA. Astrobiologists are interested in how these rocks
because it gives them insights into how rocks may form on other planets.

These stringy thermophiles make sulfur and with time they harden and fossilize into rock.

Billions of thermophiles clump together and create this yellow-mustard color at Mushroom Hot
Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
The thermophiles we study today are modern relatives of ancient thermophiles. Think about what
types of organisms might have lived more than 3.5 billion years ago. At first, Earth was a hot,
volcanically-active planet. Slowly, over the years, it cooled and formed the lands and seas we
know today. There are numerous theories that suggest thermophiles -- and life -- may have
originated at deep-sea vents early in Earths history.

But Earth is not the only place in our solar system where life could evolve and exist. All life as
we know it requires water, an energy source and a carbon source. Both Mars and one of Jupiters
moons, Europa, may have these conditions, and thus make good targets to look for past and
present life.

Can studying thermophiles at deep-sea vents help us in our search for evidence of past and
present life on other planets? Scientists think the answer is yes. Clues on Mars landscape
suggest that water once flowed there. Also, Mars still has an ice cap and there may be liquid
water deep in the planets interior. There is also geologic evidence that Mars once had volcanoes,
much larger and more powerful than the volcanoes we know today on Earth. Astrobiologists
think that any evidence of life found on other planets will be bacteria-like, living beneath the
planet or moon surface and using chemical energy for their life needs.

Thermophiles are also useful to us on a daily basis. Thermophiles make protein molecules called
enzymes that speed up chemical reactions. Enzymes from thermophiles are useful in high
temperature situations. Enzymes are added to many washing detergents because they can eat
away the oily stains on clothing in hot water.

Genetic research is another area where thermophiles are used. The thermophilic DNA enzyme
Taq polymerase, an enzyme that makes many copies of DNA pieces, was first obtained from the
thermophile Thermus aquaticus from Yellowstone National Park. This thermophile creates the
yellow-mustard color found in many hot springs around Yellowstones Lower Geyser Basin.

Biotechnology companies have also been selling similar enzymes from deep-sea hydrothermal
vent thermophiles. These enzymes are called Pfu polymerase and have helped us to discover
genetic diseases, find criminals who may have left hair or blood at the crime scene and sequence
the entire human genome.

On this expedition, we use enzymes to try and identify the bacteria we collect from hydrothermal
vents. Like detectives using genetic methods to find criminals, we look for a specific piece of
genetic DNA that identifies our organisms, and then we make many copies of the gene. Using
this process, we are finding many new types of bacteria at deep-sea vents that we have never
seen before. Its amazing to think what we might learn from them.

An international team of scientists, including researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden,
The University of Texas at Austin and elsewhere, discovered several new microbes carrying
genes that until now were thought to be unique to a group of more complex life forms including
humans. This finding supports a decades-old hypothesis that complex life first arose from the
merger of two simpler life forms.

Here is the picture that is emerging:

Around 2 billion years ago, a
microbe called an archaeon gobbled
up a bacterium, and the bacterium
survived. Because the new living
arrangement was beneficial to both
the landlord and the tenant, the two
previously free-living microbes
spawned a single, hybrid offspring
a new form of life whose
descendants evolved into plants,
fungi, fish and even humans. These
life forms, characterized by cells
with complex internal structures, are called eukaryotes.

The other major form of life the prokaryotes, which includes small microscopic bacteria and
archaea have long been defined as having cells with much simpler internal structure. But now
that distinction may be blurring.

The things we thought made a eukaryote a eukaryote, were now finding in these new archaea,
says Brett Baker, assistant professor at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and a
co-author of the paper outlining the new discovery published online today in the journal Nature.
Were essentially rewriting the textbook on basic biology.

The research was led by Thijs Ettema at Uppsala University in Sweden and also includes
researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, Aarhus University in Denmark, GNS
Science in New Zealand, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and Ghent
University in Belgium.

The latest findings extend work published in 2015 by the same team led by Ettema, which
identified the first species of archaea with genes previously thought to be unique to eukaryotes.
All these archaea appear to be descendants of the original archaeal host cell, which also spawned
the eukaryotes. Each of these microbes is so different from the others as different as a tree is
to a mushroom that they represent four unique groups, called phyla. And together, these four
new phyla named for Norse gods Thor, Odin, Heimdall and Loki form a new group called

Because these new archaea contain even more eukaryotic genes than were discovered in the
archaeon announced in 2015, this latest work suggests that the original archaeal host cell had
even more of the key elements of eukaryotes.
The Asgard archaea were discovered in aquatic sediments collected at seven sites around the
world, including hydrothermal vents in the Arctic Ocean, an aquifer in Colorado, a bay in
Denmark and hot springs in New Zealand and Yellowstone National Park. So far, these archaea
have not been successfully grown in a laboratory or imaged under a microscope. Instead, they
were identified by painstakingly reconstructing their genomes from bits of genetic material
collected from the sediments.

Baker and UT Austin graduate student Kiley Seitz were one of several groups that used high-
throughput DNA sequencing and innovative computational approaches to piece together the
genomes of the newly described organisms, and also identified eukaryotic genes within those

Studying Asgard archaea in more detail is a top goal for Ettema, Baker and the rest of the team.
The present study shows that these archaea can be found in many more environments and not
just in the ocean floor as thought before. This makes this goal much more tractable.

It would be great if we could isolate or grow Asgard cells, and study them under the
microscope, says Ettema. I am convinced that this will reveal more important clues about how
complex cells evolved. Ultimately our microbial ancestry will be uncovered.

Funding for this research was provided by the European Research Council, the Swedish
Foundation for Strategic Research, the Swedish Research Council, the European Union, the
Danish National Research Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.