|MadSci Network: Microbiology|
These new life forms are very fascinating because they are so different from what we usually encounter.
The way it works is, most bacteria (and living things in general) eat food derived from photosynthetic plants. But there are some bacteria that can use certain minerals (mainly sulfur compounds) as their energy source.
In the deep sea there are volcanic vents that give off sulfur-containing compounds from deep within the earth. After bacteria start to grow around the vents, then other life forms arrive to eat the bacteria. Because of the tremendous pressure and almost complete lack of organic materials in the deep sea, the ways in which these organisms function is quite far off the beaten path!
There have been quite a few articles on these in the biologic and general literature in the last few years. One of the scientists involved is Robert Ballard.
Thanks for the question!
Mad Scientist Jackie Trischman adds:
The "new life form" is not so new actually. I believe you are referring to the Archaebacterium which recently had its entire genome determined. The genetic material showed that this archaebacterium is as distantly related to eukaryotes (fungi to humans) as it is to other prokaryotes (bacteria). This supports the 3-kingdom system devised by Woese in 1981: Archaebacteria, Eubacteria, and Eukaryotes.
Woese's molecular-level genetic analyses led him to hypothesize that archaebacteria, eubacteria, and eukaryotes all eveolved from a common simple ancestor, the progenote. The determination of the entire genome of a methanogenic (methane-producing) archaebacterium from a deep ocean environment just offers more support for Woese's 3-kingdom system.
For more info, see Woese, C.R. 1981. Archaebacteria. Scientific American 244(6):98-122.
Also, a new edition microbial ecology text would have further information.
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