Year in review

Microbe holds clues to origins of life

It is not every day that an entirely new form of life is discovered. In fact, until this year, only two kingdoms of life were known to exist: Prokarya, single-celled organisms with no nucleus, such as bacteria; and Eukarya, nucleated organisms such as plants and animals.

But this year, researchers at The Institute for Genomic Research offered evidence of a third life form: Archaea. These organisms share characteristics with Prokarya and Eukarya but were shown to be distinct from both. And a startling 44 percent of the Archaeons' 1,700 genes were found to be unlike anything ever before seen in biology.

The finding came after researchers completed a genetic blueprint of a microbe called Methanococcus jannaschii, found 13 years ago in a volcanic vent deep under the surface on the floor of the Pacific.

Although the organisms' place on the evolutionary ladder remains unclear, some researchers speculate that the Archaea, Greek for ancient, is the oldest of the three life forms and may most closely resemble the life that may exist on inhospitable planets like Mars or Jupiter's moon Europa.

According to at least one report, scientists think the strange organism could help clean up hazardous waste, or, because it emits large amounts of methane, could one day yield new sources of natural gas. Researchers also believe the completion of the Methanococcus genetic blueprint will help trace all life forms to what is believed to have been a single universal ancestor.

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