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Top Story

Researchers uncover clue about how tiny microbes self-mutate

Researchers have discovered that previously unidentified microorganisms have a genetic element that enables them to self-mutate. What's more, these organisms are so plentiful they dramatically expand the diversity of the tree of life. According to the research team, these microorganisms can be 500 times smaller than bacteria like E. coli and can do unusual things to some of the key genes used for identification, like splitting them into pieces small enough to render them invisible to scientific surveillance. This, combined with their ultra-small size, explains why they were missed until recently. When analyzing the microorganisms' genomes, the researchers detected unusual genetic elements previously encountered in deep-sea samples. These genetic elements, called diversity-generating retroelements, let microbes target their own genes for accelerated mutation.

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