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Community of one

Genetic analysis reveals how a single species of bacterium thrives on its own three kilometers underground

1:58pm, October 9, 2008
A fracture deep underground in a South African gold mine holds a rare biological find — an ecological system populated by a single species of bacteria. An analysis of the bacterium’s complete genetic makeup, published October 10 in Science, reveals that the bacteria have all the tools to survive completely alone.

“This really stands one of the basic tenets of microbial ecology on its head,” says Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the NASAAmesResearchCenter headquartered at Mountain View, Calif. Based on experience with other ecosystems, scientists thought that any microbial community would contain a variety of species, each specialized to grow on different nutrients. Some microbes would use nutrients found in the environment and make byproducts that other microbes could use to grow.

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