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All organisms on Earth are classified as either prokaryotes, which have simple cells, or eukaryotes, which have larger, more complex cells.
But the two cell types are so divergent that understanding how one evolved from the other has foxed biologists.
The new microbes, reported in Nature journal, go some way to bridging that gap.
They have been named Lokiarchaeota, partly after the Loki's Castle volcanic vent system lying 15km away from the site where the microbes' genetic material was isolated in cold marine sediments of the Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge.
Eukaryotic cells are so very different from prokaryotes that understanding eukaryote origins and ancestry has been a puzzle. Genetic work places archaea closer than bacteria to eukaryotes, but biochemically and morphologically, archaea are closer to bacteria than to eukaryotes. But now Thijs Ettema and colleagues have identified archaea — from a core sample from the Loki's Castle hydrothermal active venting site — that fit the bill as a genomic 'starter-kit' to support the increase in the cellular and genomic complexity that is characteristic of eukaryotes. This novel archaeal group, named Lokiarchaeota, is an immediate sister group of eukaryotes in phylogenetic analyses and has a repertoire of proteins otherwise characteristic of eukaryotes.