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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Explained: What is Archaea?

As archaea are relatively poorly studied, very little is known about how archaea behave in the human body.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune | Updated: January 25, 2020 1:37:29 pm
archea, archea microorganism, sambhar lake in rajasthan, rajasthan sambhar salt lake, indian express Archaea (singular archaeon) are a primitive group of microorganisms that thrive in extreme habitats such as hot springs, cold deserts and hypersaline lakes. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists at the National Centre for Microbial Resource — National Centre for Cell Science (NCMR-NCCS) in Pune have reported a new archaeon (a kind of microorganism), which they discovered in Sambhar Salt Lake in Rajasthan. The discovery was described on Thursday in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. This is the only journal that publishes the description of new microbial taxa, said Dr Yogesh Shouche, senior scientist at NCCS.

Why it matters

Archaea (singular archaeon) are a primitive group of microorganisms that thrive in extreme habitats such as hot springs, cold deserts and hypersaline lakes. These slow-growing organisms are also present in the human gut, and have a potential relationship with human health. They are known for producing antimicrobial molecules, and for anti-oxidant activity with applications in eco-friendly waste-water treatment.

Archaea are extremely difficult to culture due to challenges in providing natural conditions in a laboratory setting, said Dr Avinash Sharma, one of the researchers at NCMR-NCCS. Very few groups are working on their cultivation, said co-author Swapnil Kajale.

Scientists in China, Israel, Russia and a few countries in Europe are working on the taxonomy of archaea, but going by the number of publications that are coming out on all bacterial taxonomy, the studies on archaea are outnumbered. As archaea are relatively poorly studied, very little is known about how archaea behave in the human body.

Search and discovery

Sambhar Lake has been poorly studied for microbial ecology studies. With a salt production of 0.2 million tonnes per annum, it is also a hypersaline ecosystem which provides an opportunity for microbial ecologists to understand organisms that thrive in such concentrations.

Once the new organism was found, it took researchers one year to complete the study because archaea grow so slow. Based on a mandatory genome analysis, researchers found that the organism has potential gene clusters that helps maintain the metabolism of the archaea to survive in extreme harsh conditions. This particular organism also harbours specific pathways for DNA replication, recombination and repair.

The new archaeon has been named Natrialba swarupiae, after Dr Renu Swarup, secretary, Department of Biotechnology, for her initiative in supporting microbial diversity studies in the country, the researchers said.

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