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Understanding Cicadas and their Bacterial Symbionts

How do cicadas gather the nutrients they need to survive, despite their low-nutrient diet? John McCutcheon, a molecular biologist at the University of Arizona, says that cicadas supplement their diet by maintaining complicated relationships with two species of specialized bacteria that live inside their cells. The bacteria produce essential nutrients for the cicadas that the animals neither receive from their sap diets nor produce themselves.

McCutcheon's study builds on his post-doctoral research advisor Nancy Moran's previous work by characterizing the complete genome of one of the bacterial species living inside cicadas. His results revealed that these bacteria have extreme and unique features.

For one thing, this organism has the smallest bacterial genome known to science. In other words, it has less genetic material than any other cellular organism that has, thus far, been identified.

What's more, the genome of the cicada bacteria has a high average content of guanine and cytosine - two of the four chemical bases of DNA. This finding is surprising because scientists previously thought that the smaller a bacterial genome is, the less guanine and cytosine is usually present in its DNA.

"We don't yet understand the significance of this exception," says McCutcheon. "But it goes against everything we thought we understood about the relationship between bacterial genome size and guanine and cytosine contents."

The researchers believe their new findings suggest common life forms, like cicadas, can depend on complex symbiotic relationships with specialized, extreme microbes.

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