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DNA analysis of essential marine microbe yields surprises: Tiny organism plays critical role in ocean

Genome analysis of an important microbe sheds light on the unexplained puzzle of how oceans maintain a healthy balance of nutrients, say scientists at UC Santa Cruz.

While Jonathan Zehr, a marine microbiologist at UCSC, discovered the microbe in 1998 near Hawaii, the tiny organism has proved difficult to study.

"We still haven't seen it under a microscope," Zehr said.

The scientists have also been unable to grow the microbe in the laboratory. Recently, however, James Tripp, a microbial physiologist on Zehr's team, was able to use futuristic technology -- flow cytometry -- to determine the organism's genome.

"To get an entire genome required some inventive techniques," Tripp said. "It was a big technical challenge."

Analyzing the microbe, Tripp found it possessed only a limited set of genes. Despite being shortchanged in DNA currency, however, the microbe performs a vital function in the ocean: it takes nitrogen gas out of the atmosphere and transforms the gas into a form that provides essential nutrients to other marine creatures.

This process, called nitrogen fixation, effectively creates a natural marine fertilizer and influences the biological productivity of the ocean.

"It has only the genes that you would expect for nitrogen fixation," Tripp said. "Everything else has been jettisoned."

Scientists have been unable to account for the amount of nitrogen produced in the ocean, Zehr said. The discovery of this microbe might be an important part of answering that question, he says.

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