Rare Organisms Discovered in Nova Scotia

By Ben Hamill - November 21, 2018
Rare Organisms Discovered in Nova Scotia

Researchers in Canada have discovered a never-before-seen kind of organism that is so different from all other forms of life that it doesn’t match any of the categories currently used to classify living organisms. In short: it isn’t a plant, a fungus, a eukaryote or an animal – so what exactly is it?

Two new species of the microscopic organisms, which have been called hemimastigotes, were discovered in dirt samples collected on a whim by Dalhousie University graduate Yana Eglit. Eglit collected her samples while on a hike in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

A genetic analysis has shown that the organisms are more different from other forms of life than animals and fungi, which all have different classification kingdoms, are from one another. Thus, hemimastigotes represent a totally new branch on the tree of life, according to a report from Eglit and her colleagues in the journal Nature.

A Glimpse of Early Life-Forms

Dalhousie biology professor Alastair Simpson, Eglit’s supervisor and the co-author of the study on the microorganisms, has also weighed in on their discovery. In his words, they represent a new, major branch in the web of life that scientists did not even know was missing from the puzzle. He also explained that there are no other forms of life science knows of that is closely related to them.

To elaborate, Simpson has estimated that you would need to go back about a billion years – that’s over 500 million years before the first animals appeared – in order to find a common ancestor of hemimastagotes and any other known living organisms.

After Eglit collected the dirt on a hike with fellow students, it was soaked in water, which typically revives microbes that have fallen dormant in wait of the next bout of rain. In the weeks following this, she regularly checked the dish of dirt using a microscope to observe what may be swimming around therein.

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A Mystery May Soon be Solved

One day, about three weeks after the sample was taken, something caught Eglit’s eye. She described it as being shaped like a partly open pistachio shell covered in plenty of tiny hairs, known scientifically as flagella.

The scientist instantly recognized the strange motion of these flagellae, having seen something similar once before, and identified the organism as a rare hemimastagote, which were first described in the 19th century and have been a prevailing mystery ever since.

From there, Eglit and her team dropped everything to analyze the organism – only to find that another, totally new species of hemimastagote (now named Hemimastix kukwesjijk) was also present in the sample! The Dalhousie team is now doing more complete genetic analyses of Hemimastix species, which will turn up new data and help science to discover more about the evolutionary history of life on Earth.

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Dalhousie University
Nova Scotia