Groundwater Microbe Might Provide Glimpse
Into Metabolism of Earth's Earliest Cells

June 6, 1998
Contact: Chris Curran
(513) 556-1806 (O)

Cincinnati -- Biologists at the University of Cincinnati have found a microbe deep inside a Romanian aquifer which might have one of the most primitive energy-capturing mechanisms known.

Brian Kinkle, associate professor of biological sciences, and graduate student Radu Popa presented their data during the recent meeting of the American Society of Microbiology in Atlanta.

A team of scientists from the University of Cincinnati and the Speleological Institute of Romania has been exploring the Movile Cave in Romania for the last several years. It is a unique underground ecosystem which has been evolving in isolation from the surface world for several million years. Previous work by the group demonstrated that the cave's ecosystem is chemoautotrophic-based, relying entirely on energy derived from chemical processes with no energy inputs from photosynthesis.

Popa has extended the research by isolating two of the microbes which grow in the anaerobic waters under the cave system. They belong to the genera Desulfotomaculum and Thiobacillus.

Popa's experiments demonstrated that the Desulfotomaculum strain is able to live off iron sulfide and hydrogen sulfide, producing the mineral pyrite. Further work will examine the specific metabolic pathways used by the microbe.

"His hypothesis is that this is a very primitive metabolism, one of the first types of energy-yielding pathways used by living organisms," said Kinkle. "That would be very interesting and have potential applications for the search for life on other planets."

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