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Genetic and statistical analyses revealed that these unknown organisms must make up 99.9% of all the microbes in the soil. One gram of soil--the weight of a little packet of low-calorie sweetener--can contain as many as 10,000 species unknown to science, says Handelsman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin.
Now, for the first time, she and her colleagues, along with several other research groups working independently, are learning to extract the DNA of these mysterious creatures and clone it. They are finding that the microbes differ so profoundly from known bacteria that they could represent entirely new kingdoms of life--as different from other bacteria as animals are from plants. That means that the proteins produced by these creatures could have properties unlike any other such substances known.