Groups Of Archaebacteria
Archaebacteria can be divided into three groups. The first group is comprised of the methane producers (or methanogens). These archaebacteria live in environments without oxygen. Methanogens are widely distributed in nature. Habitats include swamps, deep-sea waters, sewage treatment facilities, and even in the stomachs of cows. Methanogens obtain their energy from the use of carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas.
The second group of Archaebacteria are known as the extreme halophiles. Halophile means "salt loving." Members of this second group live in areas with high salt concentration, such as the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In fact, some of the archaebacteria cannot tolerate a relatively unsalty environment such as seawater. Halophilic microbes produce a purple pigment called bacteriorhodopsin, which allows them to use sunlight as a source of photosynthetic energy, similar to plants.
The last group of archaebacteria lives in hot, acidic waters such as those found in sulfur springs or deep-sea thermal vents. These organisms are called the extreme thermophiles. Thermophilic means heat loving. They thrive at temperatures of 160°F (70°C) or higher and at pH levels of pH=1 or pH=2 (the same pH as concentrated sulfuric acid).
Archaebacteria reproduce asexually by a process called binary fission. In binary fission, the bacterial DNA replicates and the cell wall pinches off in the center of the cell. This divides the organism into two new cells, each with a copy of the circular DNA. This is a quick process, with some species dividing once every twenty minutes. Sexual reproduction is absent in the archaebacteria, although genetic material can be exchanged between cells by three different processes. In transformation, DNA fragments that have been released by one bacterium are taken up by another bacterium. In transduction, a bacterial phage (a virus that infects bacterial cells) transfers genetic material from one organism to another. In conjugation, two bacteria come together and exchange genetic material. These mechanisms give rise to genetic recombination, allowing for the continued evolution of the archaebacteria.
Archaebacteria are fundamentally important to the study of evolution and how life first appeared on Earth. The organisms are also proving to be useful and commercially important. For example, methanogens are used to dissolve components of sewage. The methane they give off can be harnessed as a source of power and fuel. Archaebacteria are also used to clean up environmental spills, particularly in harsher environments where most bacteria will fail to survive.
A thermophilic archaebacterium called Thermus aquaticus has revolutionized molecular biology and the biotechnology industry. This is because the cells contain an enzyme that both operates at a high temperature and is key to making genetic material. This enzyme has been harnessed as the basis for a technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is now one of the bedrocks of molecular biology.
See also Evolution, divergent.
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