Scientists have always believed that microbes don’t usually go extinct, but new research found that bacteria species can die off, and it happens a lot more often than we’d think.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Caltech, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and it was published on 30 July in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Bacteria Can Go Extinct
According to the scientists’ analysis, when bacteria go extinct, they just fade away and don’t fossilize, this is why they’re not found in mass extinction events. However, using advanced computer simulations, scientists could see how microbes evolved in the last billion years. The leader of the study, researcher Stilianos Louca (University of British Columbia) explains how he and his team found out that bacteria can go extinct in time:
“Bacteria rarely fossilize, so we know very little about how the microbial landscape has evolved. Sequencing and math helped us fill in the bacterial family tree, map how they’ve diversified over time, and uncover their extinctions.”
In the simulations, scientists saw that in the last million years, 45,000 – 95,000 bacteria species went extinct. At the moment, there are 1.4 – 1.9 million live bacteria lineages on Earth, Louca explaining that “while modern bacterial diversity is undoubtedly high, it’s only a tiny snapshot of the diversity that evolution has generated over Earth’s history.”
New Technology Enables Discovery
The senior author of the study and UBC mathematician and zoologist, Michael Doebeli, explains that this discovery would not have been possible ten years ago:
“Today’s availability of massive sequencing data and powerful computational resources allowed us to perform the complex mathematical analysis.”
The next step in their research is to find out how the bacteria’s physiological properties have evolved. This could allow the scientists to find if the bacteria’s ability to spread to different environments and the change of their roles in those new environments are the ones that triggered the increase in the number of different species. If they can prove that, it would mean that even ancient and simple bacteria could adapt and find other roles in nature.
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.