Saturday, October 11, 2008

Goldmine Bug DNA May Be Key to Alien Life

"The fact that the community contains only one species stands one of the basic tenets of microbial ecology on its head," says Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, who was not involved in Chivian's DNA analysis but whose team made the initial discovery that there were microbes living in this particular fissure two years ago.

Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson says the discovery is so important he will at once begin to mention it in his lectures on biodiversity.

Community of one

A community of a single species is almost unheard of in the microbial world. It means the ecosystem's only species must extract everything it needs from an otherwise dead environment.

"Virtually all other known ecosystems on Earth that don't use sunlight directly do use some product of photosynthesis," says Pilcher.

Deep-sea vent communities, for instance, are too far down to directly use sunlight but they do use oxygen dissolved in seawater, and that oxygen is produced by photosynthesising plankton at the surface.

Chivian's analysis shows that D. audaxviator gets its energy from the radioactive decay of uranium in the surrounding rocks. It has genes to extract carbon from dissolved carbon dioxide and other genes to fix nitrogen, which comes from the surrounding rocks. Both carbon and nitrogen are essential building blocks for life as we know it, and are used in the building blocks of proteins, amino acids. D. audaxviator has genes to produce all the amino acids it needs.\

ABC News: Goldmine Bug DNA May Be Key to Alien Life

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