'Terrifying' Organism Can't Fit on Our Tree of Life

So maybe it deserves a new branch
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 17, 2018 11:43 AM CST
The microscopic Hemimastix kukwesjijk.   (Yana Eglit)

(Newser) – Scoop up some dirt, and what do you get—a whole new branch on the tree of life. We can thank Canadian grad student Yana Eglit, who took a dirt sample while hiking and found two microscopic species that have long proved impossible to classify, the CBC reports. "They represent a major branch ... that we didn't know we were missing," says Alastair Simpson, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "There's nothing we know that's closely related to them." In analyzing her sample, Eglit spotted two kinds of minuscule organism called hemimastigotes—one of which had never been seen before. Scientists already know of roughly 10 hemimastigote species but haven't been able to classify them. And no hemimastigote had ever undergone genetic analysis before.

So Dalhousie researchers sequenced their genes using a new technique that gathers useful data from just a few cells, per Science Alert. The upshot: These organisms are as unlike other living things as fungi and animals are from one another. Technically they're eukaryotes (possessing complex cells, like human beings) and protists (not within the fungi, plant, and animal kingdoms), but don't fit patterns in the Eukaryota domain—so the Dalhousie team assigned them their own "supra-kingdom." They also named the newly discovered hemimastigote Hemimastix kukwesjijk after an ogre from indigenous Canadian lore. After all, the tiny being has hairs and ruthlessly grabs its prey. The local Mi'kmaq people "have an ogre-like creature [named Kukwes] who is also hairy and terrifying and eats other creatures," says Eglit. (Meanwhile, science has solved how to make a great pizza at home.)

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