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Arsenic-breathing microbes discovered in the tropical Pacific Ocean

For most living things, arsenic is a deadly poison, but new research shows that microorganisms are breathing arsenic in a large area of the Pacific Ocean. A National Science Foundation-funded team has discovered that this ancient survival strategy is still being used in low-oxygen parts of the marine environment. The scientists analyzed seawater samples from an ocean region where oxygen is almost absent, forcing life to seek other strategies. The team looked at samples collected during a research cruise to the tropical Pacific. DNA analyses found two genetic pathways known to use arsenic-based molecules as a way of gaining energy. The pathways target two forms of arsenic. The scientists believe these pathways are found in two organisms that cycle arsenic back and forth in different forms. Arsenic-breathing microorganisms may make up less than 1% of the microbe population in these waters. The microbes may be distantly related to the arsenic-breathing microbes found in hot springs and in certain contaminated sites on land.

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