Researchers in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences have discovered important genetic clues about the history of one of Earth’s oldest life forms called archaea.
“Archaea are an ancient form of microorganisms, so everything we can learn about them could help us to answer questions about the origin of life,” said William Whitman, a microbiology professor and co-author on the paper.
Felipe Sarmiento, lead author and doctoral student in the microbiology department, surveyed 1,779 genes found in the genome of Methanococcus maripaludis, aquatic archaea commonly found in sea marshes, to determine whether they were essential to support life and to learn more about their functions. He found that roughly 30 percent, or 526 genes, were essential. The results of the study were published March 4 in the PNAS Early Edition and were performed with Jan Mrázek, an associate professor in the microbiology department and the UGA Institute of Bioinformatics.
Although archaea are relatively simple organisms, the genetic systems they use to build cellular life are similar to those of more complicated eukaryotic cells found in complex organisms including animals and plants. For this reason, many scientists believe that eukaryotes evolved from archaea.
The study yielded other important results.
“We found 121 proteins that are essential for this organism that we know nothing about,” Sarmiento said. “This finding asks questions about their functions and the specific roles that they are playing. We are starting to get some insights about how this organism was actually formed. There is a lot of information, and it is interesting, because it gives insights into a complete domain of life.”