Bizarre New Form of Life Found in Arctic Ocean, Scientists Announce

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
January 11, 2007
An entirely new group of tiny and bizarre marine algae has been discovered in the Arctic Ocean.

A team of European researchers found the new organisms while analyzing DNA sequences in samples of seawater. (Related: "Extreme New Species Discovered by Sea-Life Survey" [December 11, 2006].)

Genetic evidence pointed to the presence of an unknown type of microalgae, which the researchers named picobiliphytes ("pico" means "a trillionth of a part of") because of their miniscule size.

But the discovery may be huge—scientifically speaking.

"These organisms represent a new evolutionary lineage," said team member Fabrice Not. Not is a marine biologist at the Institut de Ciències del Mar, a part of Spain's National Research Council.

"The discovery didn't provide any sister relationship to any other groups of organisms known to date. It means that this new group is probably a high-rank taxon [group] in terms of classification," Not added—hinting at the huge amount of diversity in sea life.

"In fact, the divergence of this group from known organisms is as great as the difference between land plants and animals," Connie Lovejoy, a biologist at Universit Laval in Canada and another member of the research team, said in a statement.

The find will be reported in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.

Inside Track

Over the past year the research team has used various techniques to see and count the tiny picobiliphytes, Not said, though the scientists have not yet been able to grow the microalgae in the lab.

The scientists believe the organisms are widely distributed in the northern seas.

The researchers also found that picobiliphytes contain pigments called phycobilins that give off orange fluorescence when bathed in blue light.

The picobiliphytes, like most microalgae, probably acquired their pigments through an evolutionary act of cooperation, Not added.

Another organism probably lived inside the picobiliphytes and provided them with an energy supply in the form of the light-absorbing pigments, Not said.

In this case, judging from the type of pigments involved, the picobiliphytes probably got their pigments from a reddish microalgae, he added.

Food for the Future

While the discovery is a potential boom for biodiversity, it isn't likely to attract investors just yet, Not said.

"This is primarily pure fundamental research with no commercial application," he said. "The main fields of research impacted by this discovery are the microbial ecology and the evolution of eukaryotes"—organisms that contain cells with a nucleus.

But Robert Andersen, director of the Provasoli-Guillard National Center for Culture of Marine Phytoplankton in Maine, says the discovery is "terrific" and may turn out to have "considerable value" commercially.

Andersen said other phycobilin-producing algae are commercially grown for their pigments, which are used in products such as cosmetics.

"Phycobilipigments are also rich sources of protein, and they are used as a food source in aquaculture hatcheries," he said.

If the new picobiliphytes can be grown in sufficient quantities to provide such a nutrient source, he added, "they will really be valuable."

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