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Small, cold, & hungry: Ultra-small microbes from 120,000-year-old glacier ice sample

ments that have been shown to use different carbon and energy sources and to be resistant to drying, starvation, radiation, and other stress factors. Their modern relatives include the model ultra-micro bacterium Sphingopyxis alaskensis, which is abundant in cold Alaskan waters," Brenchley reports. She and Miteva are in the process of closely examining all the microbes they found in order to determine the identities and diversity of the species and to look for ones with novel functions.

The researchers used a variety of methods including repeated sample filtrations, electron microscopy, and a modified technique of flow cytometry to quickly reveal the number of cells and to estimate their different sizes, DNA content, and other characteristics. Miteva and Brenchley discovered cells with many different shapes and sizes, including a large percentage that were even smaller than filter-pore sizes of only 0.2 microns. "It appears that these ultra-small microbes often are missed in research studies because they pass through the finest filters commonly used to collect cells for analysis," Miteva says.

Scientists believe these dwarf cells belong to the "uncultured majority" because they are among the 99 percent of all microbes on Earth that never have been isolated and cultured for study. Obtaining such "isolates" is necessary in order to describe a new organism, study its cell size, examine its physiology, and assess its ecological role. "We now know just the tip of the iceberg of all the microbes that exist on Earth, and it generally is believed that a large portion of these unknown microbes are very small in size," Miteva says.

"A major challenge is to develop novel approaches for growing some of these previously unculturable organisms," Brenchley says. "At present, no single established protocol exists and little is known about the recovery of these stressed and possibly damaged cells from a frozen environment that subjects them to se
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Contact: Barbara Kennedy
science@psu.edu
814-863-4682
Penn State
26-May-2004


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