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Meet the world’s smallest known life-form

Not the prettiest, but add the right Instagram filter, and this bacteria would be ready for anything. Image: Berkeley Lab

Not the prettiest, but add the right Instagram filter, and this bacteria would be ready for anything. Image: Berkeley Lab

Think of the smallest creature you can think of. No, not a cat, they’re quite big. No, an ant is still quite sizable… no, look, we’re going to be here forever: it’s a bacteria. A really small bacteria. You could fit 150 of these into an E-coli cell, and 150,000 of those cells could fit onto the tip of a human hair. Not that this should be an ambition to aspire to, particularly.

As you rush to the shower, wondering what the next step up from bleach is, you should stop for a second to appreciate what a major feat this is. Not just because our limited photography skills mean we struggle to take the perfect selfie, but because the bacteria pictured is so small that it’s also extremely delicate and easy to kill. These samples were caught after being flash-frozen to -272 degrees centigrade, before being taken to the lab. And if you think losing your keys is easily done, you should try keeping tabs on a critter with an average volume of 0.0009 cubic microns. Well, you shouldn’t, but you know what we mean.

So what do they do? That’s where things get a bit hazy. “They’re enigmatic. These bacteria are detected in many environments and they probably play important roles in microbial communities and ecosystems. But we don’t yet fully understand what these ultra-small bacteria do,” Jill Banfield – one of a team of researchers responsible for the pictures – told

They reckon this is as small as something can get while still accommodating life, and the breakdown of what’s in the cell is pretty impressive for such a tiny frame: tightly packed spirals that are probably DNA, a low number of ribosomes, hair-like appendages to look fabulous, and a bare-bones metabolism, that suggests they need other bacteria to stay alive. “We don’t know the function of half the genes we found in the organisms from these three phyla,” explains Banfield.

What can we learn from further study, then? Hopefully it’ll shed some light on how microbes assist the planet’s climate, food-chain and water supply. It turns out that this tiny microbe could yet help answer some pretty massive questions.

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