Deep-sea microbes called missing link for complex cellular life

May 12, 2015

Image credit: Reuters/Center for Geobiology/University of Bergen, Norway

By Will Dunham

Deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Norway, scientists have found microorganisms they call a missing link connecting the simple cells that first populated Earth to the complex cellular life that emerged roughly 2 billion years ago.

The researchers said on Wednesday a group of microorganisms called Lokiarchaeota, or Loki for short, were retrieved from the inhospitable, frigid seabed about 1.5 miles (2.35 km) under the ocean surface not too far from a hydrothermal vent system called Loki’s Castle, named after a Norse mythological figure.

The discovery provides insight into how the larger, complex cell types that are the building blocks for fungi, plants and animals including people, a group called eukaryotes, evolved from small, simple microbes, they said.

The Lokiarchaeota are part of a group called Archaea that have relatively simple cells lacking internal structures such as a nucleus. But the researchers found the Lokiarchaeota share with eukaryotes a significant number of genes, many with functions related to the cell membrane.

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17 comments on “Deep-sea microbes called missing link for complex cellular life

  • Life began on earth. God didn’t do it. So a series of chemistry events has occurred that culminated in life. This article, plus a recent article in New Scientist suggest hydrothermal vents may be the site for this series of events. We may never know for sure, but we will know that god didn’t do it. From the New Scientist article.

    Living cells are powered by a totally unexpected process. The energy from food is used to pump protons across a membrane to build up an electrochemical gradient. This gradient drives the machinery of life, like water from a dam driving a turbine.

    And Lane argues that life has been powered by proton gradients from the very beginning. Forget all those primordial soups or “warm ponds”: only the natural proton gradients found in undersea alkaline hydrothermal vents could have provided the continuous flux of carbon and energy that life requires. These vents may be common on rocky planets so, if this reasoning is correct, simple cells should be too.


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  • 2
    aroundtown says:

    but we will know that god didn’t do it.

    I appreciate your perspective. I think the proposition for disbelief in supernatural triggers is pretty much already here for most of us who don’t suffer the “god did it” explanation. It gets a little strange that religion wants you to keep considering the mystery when it is just as plausible to ask whether Micky and Minnie mouse were more than just friends, it just becomes pointless speculation on something that is made up.

    I remember a discussion from Astrophysicist Stephen Weinberg in a series called the Atheist Tapes where he stated his impression that his fellow colleges didn’t even consider religion generally so they saw a world devoid of the condition. I do hope that translates to the general populace in time but education will be key I’m thinking.

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  • It’s good that science has found another ‘link’ in the great chain of being that connects us to what may be our earliest ancestors and provides us with a possible explanation of lifes origins. It brings us closer to understanding exactly how the first life got started here on Earth and how it might get started on other planets.

    Convincing theories of how the universe came into being and how life came into being, theories that don’t require an intelligent designer, are what are needed to demolish any idea that a Supreme Being is, was, or ever will be, logically necessary for our existence.

    That’s one more nail in the coffin of Christian theology and apologetics!

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  • 5
    Pinball1970 says:

    “Life Ascending,” Nick Lane gives a wonderful summery of a lot of the work in this area.

    Also, “A new History of life.” Ward and Kirschvink – jury out on that till I have finished it but it is pretty good so far.

    Looks like they will need to add a few more chapters in the next edition!

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  • You’ll love Nick Lane’s latest. “The Vital Question” that concentrates exclusively on this area. Superb.

    I also recomend Andreas Wagner “The Arrival of the Fittest” that has a fascinating new statistical insight into the solution space that exists for functional chemicals, spectacularly increasing the odds of stumbling upon solutions and maintaining functionality in the face of “destructive” mutation.

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  • 8
    Pinball1970 says:

    Thanks for those refs I will check them out.

    The number of disciplines required to piece this stuff together amazes me.

    A working knowledge of Geology, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, microbiology.

    Throw in cosmology/astrobiology if you are interested in how material could have got here from space/mars/somewhere else.

    Is this your area of expertise Phil?

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  • Hi, Pin.

    I’m a physicist by training and inclination, though my day job is as a technologist. My tendency is to be a generalist and work with systems and to analyse their properties by asking the physicist questions of energy use as the first best to ask. I have no training in this area whatsoever. I am strictly an amateur mostly and particularly ignorant of my own ignorance.

    Physicists, though, are increasingly drawn to microbiology perhaps as the functions of cell biochemistry can be rendered increasingly as energy consuming nano-machines. (Its no accident that Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman wanted to move into the area of microbiology and kicked off the idea of nanomachinery.)

    I believe physics has prompted some of the best progress in abiogenesis and the transition to eukaryotes from simple bacteria. Perhaps the best of all is the question how a cell having engulfed another can now “eat” for the two of them. The Mitochondrion precursor organism was something like the Rickettsia genus of bacteria (a parasite causing typhus etc.) The energy needed by a bacterium is roughly proportional to the size of its genome and when swallowed (invaginated!) the Rickettsia bacterium (or whatever) would have had 1.1 million base pairs compared with todays mitochondrion of merely 17 thousand base pairs. This extra genetic load would have needed feeding whilst still outcompeting less “greedy guts” bacteria. This burden would need carrying effortlessly whilst evolutionary pressures discaded the surplus genes, eg all those of shared “back office” processes. The very particular stable conditions to allow this may be the real bottleneck to get to multicelled and smart life and not the abiogenesis bit itself, which is starting to look like a doddle. Life started quickly, but eukaryotes needed half the age of the planet.

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  • phil rimmer
    May 15, 2015 at 7:02 am

    Physicists, though, are increasingly drawn to microbiology

    Over the last century or so, physics has been the overarching science, joining up the previously compartmentalised specialist science subjects. (engineering, chemistry, biology, astronomy etc.)

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  • 13
    Pinball1970 says:

    Physics? I use physics applications (spectral data mainly) in my job but I studied applied biology at uni. Abiogenesis was virtually absent from the course so all this was new to me until a few years ago. Like you the more I read about it the more I realise I don’t know!

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  • 14
    Pinball1970 says:

    Yes first cause and all that! Just waiting for them to find evidence of life elsewhere and see how they (theists) explain that away.

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  • Pinball1970
    May 16, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Yes first cause and all that! Just waiting for them to find evidence of life elsewhere and see how they (theists) explain that away.

    Perhaps I can help you there!!!
    In recent years, the Vatican has really taken a position of leadership in the search for extraterrestrial life. The current head of the Vatican Observatory, José Gabriel Funes, does not believe that there is any conflict between his faith and his search for life beyond this world…

    José Gabriel Funes, an Argentine Jesuit priest and astronomer, and the current director of the Vatican Observatory says there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations perhaps more evolved than humans.

    “In my opinion this possibility exists,” said the Reverend José Gabriel Funes, current director of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict XVI, referring to life on other planets.

    In fact, Funes sounds quite optimistic about the possibility of finding “brother extraterrestrial” someday…

    Asked if he was referring to beings similar to humans or even more evolved than humans, he said: “Certainly, in a universe this big you can’t exclude this hypothesis.”

    “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can’t put limits on God’s creative freedom. Why can’t we speak of a ‘brother extraterrestrial’? It would still be part of creation.”

    Funes, who runs the observatory that is based south of Rome and in Arizona, held out the possibility that the human race might actually be the “lost sheep” of the universe. There could be other beings “who remained in full friendship with their creator,” he said.

    So in case you have not worked it out using “faith-thinking”,“In recent years, the Vatican has really taken a position of leadership in the search for extraterrestrial life.” – according to the Vatican!!! – and have already decided that any intelligent extra-terrestrial life will have god-delusions focussed on their god!

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  • José Gabriel Funes, an Argentine Jesuit priest and astronomer, and the current director of the Vatican Observatory says there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations perhaps more evolved than humans.

    “More evolved” of course, refers to the pseudo-science dogma of “theistic evolution”, of ” God created the universe as a mechanism to create those all important key life-forms to worship her”!

    It has nothing to do with the scientific theory of Darwinian evolution by means of Natural Selection!

    So I suppose his circular thinking is self-consistent!
    There is no conflict between the pseudo-science of “Theistic Evolution” and Vatican dogma.

    The conflict is only with real science!!!!

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  • 17
    Pinball1970 says:

    Alan 4 discussion May 22nd “There is no conflict between the pseudo-science of “Theistic Evolution” and Vatican dogma.”

    Well, I suppose this pre-emptive strike is inevitable.

    Just in case they (smart guys) find something, say on Mars via Curiosity or further out, they (church) are already preparing what to say to their worried flock (sheep)

    God created everything, so why could he not have placed other life and a few versions of his own image here and there in the universe? Even more evolved?

    It is up to god after all right?

    Just a few things wrong with that.

    There is zero mention of anything like that in the bible and for the Christian orientated theists, there was one son only which presents another problem.

    If there is just the one copy of Jesus to redeem the sins of the world, what happens to these (more evolved) species on other planets? Are they unredeemable?

    The only way to the kingdom of heaven is through him right?

    Presumably god will only pick an “own image” hominid only on these planets for the soul stuff? Free will, original sin and possibly talking snake scenario to kick off the whole self flagellation thing?

    Just after the faeces throwing phase?

    Also the kingdom is meant to be here on earth according to some denominations so how do these other species get here for the rapture.

    This is even worse than the “how did the polar bears get to ark” question.

    Yes its getting stupid now but I am sure the OT and Genesis in particular have been poured over for one ambiguous passage, or line no matter how fragile and tenuous which demonstrates life is not exclusive to the earth.

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