Global bacterial diversity is 44% greater than previously thought

Bacteria and Archaea, collectively known as prokaryotes, are the oldest forms of life on the planet, they’ve been around for over 3500 million years and are ubiquitous, meaning they are found all across the earth in every environment, some of which are adapted to living in extreme environments such as hot springs, hydrothermal vents and glacial environments.

Although some bacteria cause a variety of diseases in plants and animals, including humans, bacteria and archaea are key for a variety of environmental processes, including aquatic photosynthesis by cyanobacteria and nutrient cycling in terrestrial and aquatic environments. As well as this, some prokaryotes form key partnerships with animals and plants, such as nitrogen fixing species in plant roots and gut bacteria which help break down food.

Some heat loving (thermophilic) bacteria aggregate and form colourful mats at the Yellowstone national park (© S. Scully)

For these reasons, studying bacteria and archaea is particularly important, to understand their use in medicine and combatting disease, their role in the environment and potential to buffer habitat against environmental change, and their importance in biotechnology. Bacteria and archaea are notoriously difficult to study in the lab, as their tiny size and immense diversity in metabolism and optimal requirements make it difficult to culture them. As a result of this, researchers have turned to genome sequencing as a way of studying these organisms.

Collaboration between researchers across the world has led to the ‘Genomes from the Earth’s Microbiomes (GEM) catalogue’, a database which contains over 52, 000 draft genomes, encompassing a large spread of samples collected from all across the world, including agricultural and natural soils, oceanic and freshwater samples, and sample collected from associated human/animal hosts and symbiotes.

Organisms such as these cyanobacteria leave traces of DNA in their environment, which can be detected using metagenomics (© J.Dazley)

The GEM catalogue has been possible despite the difficulty of bacterial culturing due to a revolutionary technique known as metagenomics. Essentially, organisms leave traces of DNA in their environment, such as lakes, soils, etc., which can be picked up in sampling, meaning that growing the species in the lab is not required to study it’s molecular biology. Through this, samples are sequenced and the DNA of various organisms can be detected, which also gives an idea of the biodiversity of the habitat.


The development of the GEM catalogue has provided researchers with an invaluable resource for studying bacteria, from their ecology, molecular genetics to help tackle disease and understand more about their place in the environment. The database has also shown that these microbes are far more diverse and numerous then we once thought, providing a wealth of information for researchers .

Super news for Snakes in the Heather

Photo credit: ARC

‘Snakes in the Heather’ is a new and exciting ARC project which has been awarded support from the National Lottery. The project aims to conserve Britain’s rarest reptile, the smooth snake, by bringing together key partners including Amphibian and Reptile Groups, Wildlife Trusts and other non-governmental and governmental organisations.

Over the past two centuries there has been an extensive decline in the smooth snake’s primary habitat, lowland heathland. The species is now only found on the heaths of Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and West Sussex, with a special introduction site in Devon. It is a very secretive creature, choosing to bask within heather vegetation and burrowing out of sight. For this reason, its ecology, behaviour and distribution have been difficult to study and therefore its status and conservation needs are poorly understood.

The £412,000 National Lottery Heritage Fund grant will develop partnerships between organisations and community volunteers, and harmonize conservation efforts across southern England.

The project will raise awareness and “ownership” of reptiles among local communities through the media and events, greater community awareness of smooth snakes as a unique component of our biological heritage. We will use a “citizen science” approach to help us conserve the smooth snake by training new and existing volunteers to carry out targeted reptile surveys. This will provide valuable data to better understand the smooth snake’s needs in order to support and inform conservation decisions. Volunteers will also carry out practical tasks to improve the species’ heathland habitats across Southern England.

The project’s legacy will ensure better managed, more resilient smooth snake populations through a greater, shared understanding of the conservation needs of the species.

The project will build on the strong local partnerships that are already in place and runs until 2023.

For more information on Snakes in the Heather contact:

smooth.snakes@arc-trust.org

Article source: https://www.arc-trust.org/snakes-in-the-heather