Thanks to a bit of luck and lots of dedicated work, researchers at a Canadian university recently stumbled upon two species of a rarely-seen organism.
The discovery by a Dalhousie University graduate student and a group of Dalhousie biologists from the Faculties of Science and Medicine is highly significant, with the findings being published in the science journal Nature.
The story behind the discovery begins a couple of years ago, when a few university students went on a spring hike along the Bluff Wilderness Trail near Halifax, Nova Scotia. That day, as she often did, graduate student Yana Egli carried empty sample vials with her. Along the way, she stopped to scoop up some dirt on the side of the trail. Back at the lab, she left the soil soaking in water in a small dish, studying it with her microscope every now and then. One day, after the sample had been in the lab for a few weeks, she peered into her microscope and saw a puzzling creature.
In the sample, Egli ultimately discovered two different species of hemimastigotes – a little-known group of microbes that hadn’t yet been assigned a place on the Tree of Life.
According to an article in Dal News, Dalhousie University biology professor Alastair Simpson, the lead author of the study, said, “This discovery literally redraws our branch of the ‘Tree of Life’ at one of its deepest points. It opens a new door to understanding the evolution of complex cells—and their ancient origins—back well before animals and plants emerged on Earth.”
The Dalhousie University team was able to sequence the genetic information of the microscopic organisms, analyzing hundreds of genes as part of their work. They were also able to successfully cultivate samples in the laboratory, with graduate student Egli becoming the first person ever to culture a hemimastigote.
The first hemimastigote species Egli found was identified as Spironema, which has only been observed under a microscope a few times since the 1800s. The second species she discovered in the sample turned out to be one that hadn’t yet been identified or named. The researchers decided to call it “Kukwes”, inspired by a creature in Mi’kmaq folklore that is described as “a ravenous, hairy ogre.” The newly-discovered microbe is now known as Hemimastix kukwesjijk. The team says the predatory microbe looks and acts like a miniature ogre.
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