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Microbial matter comes out of the dark

Scientists identify bacteria that defy rules of biochemistry

By
7:00am, September 7, 2016
illustration of a dark environment

DARK MATTER  Most microbes have stayed hidden from scientists, but new technologies are revealing unknown species of bacteria, some of which may hold medicinal promise.

Few people today could recite the scientific accomplishments of 19th century physician Julius Petri. But almost everybody has heard of his dish.

For more than a century, microbiologists have studied bacteria by isolating, growing and observing them in a petri dish. That palm-sized plate has revealed the microbial universe — but only a fraction, the easy stuff, the scientific equivalent of looking for keys under the lamppost.

But in the light — that is, the greenhouse-like conditions of a laboratory — most bacteria won’t grow. By one estimate, a staggering 99 percent of all microbial species on Earth have yet to be discovered, remaining in the shadows. They’re known as “microbial dark matter,” a reference to astronomers’ description of the vast invisible matter in space that makes up most of the mass in the cosmos.

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