Oxygen is for Wimps

April 7, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds blog Brit Trogen

The power of evolution continues to astound me. Try to think of the most inhospitable, unlivable environments on earth, and you’ll always find some extremophile organsim or other that fits in quite happily there.

But now, deep at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, a new brand of creature has been discovered that puts even those danger-loving organisms to shame: the first ever multicellular animals that live entirely without oxygen.

Anaerobic organisms aren’t uncommon; species of Bacteria and Archaea often survive without O2, and early life on earth is even believed to have evolved through these types of species. Multicellular organisms on the other hand, like humans and other animals, were always thought to need oxygen to power their mitochondria in the production of ATP.

But the discovery of these small animals—members of the group Loricifera—throws our assumptions for a loop. Instead of mitochondria, they seem to have something called “hydrogenosomes,” that have previously only been found in unicellular protozoans, allowing them to live in the toxic, sulphide-rich, hypersaline basins on the ocean floor.

And in addition to providing insight into how animal life may have evolved on Earth, this finding opens up a whole world of possibility for creatures that might exist today. If multicellular life exists in oxygen-free environments, there’s a good chance we could find it in other places like hydrothermal vents, or even on other planets, where we might not have thought to look for it before.

Granted, this doesn’t give us much hope for finding those little green men. But it’s still pretty cool.



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