Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 14:05 GMT


Do nanobacteria rule Earth and Mars?

Are these the nanobacteria that rule the Earth?

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The most common form of life on Earth may be tiny forms of bacteria, if new research in Australia is confirmed.

And right now they might be living on Mars, as well as in Earth rocks and even inside your body.

A geologist from the University of Queensland claims to have found minute multiplying bacteria under her microscope. These would be the first breeding nanobacteria identified.

[ image: The nanobacteria grow on minerals]
The nanobacteria grow on minerals
Philippa Uwins has revealed that tiny filaments in sea-floor mineral samples multiplied. She was looking at a clay mineral called illite, which has submicroscopic fibres.

But then a colleague noticed what appeared to be fungus growing on the samples. She went back to her slides and saw spore-like structures that reminded her of germinating bacteria.

Tests are now underway to try to get DNA out of the nanobacteria.

Dr Uwins does not like the word nanobacteria because she does not know the evolutionary development of her discoveries. She has called the organisms "nanobes".

[ image: The supposed nanomicrobe in the Mars rock]
The supposed nanomicrobe in the Mars rock
The existence of nanobacteria has been suggested for over 10 years. They were one of the lines of evidence used by Nasa scientists to claim that tiny structures in a Martian rock were fossil bacteria.

Nanobacteria are far smaller than any known bacteria. Indeed, many critics believe they are smaller than the minimum possible size for a living cell.

Some scientists argue that these tiny structures were formed by geological processes, not biological ones. They point out that there is no evidence for life forms only 10% of the size of the smallest known microbes on Earth.

But there are scientists who have claimed numerous examples of nanobacteria on Earth. Foremost among them is Dr Robert Folk of the University of Texas.

Nanobacteria everywhere

After looking at mineral deposits near volcanoes, he claimed, many years before the Nasa announcement, to have identified bacteria very much smaller than hitherto seen.

He believes that such bacteria form the bulk of living things on Earth and may be responsible for the rusting of metal and the "greening" of copper.

The Nasa team picked up Folk's work when describing the tube-shaped forms they saw in the Martian meteorite as "similar in size and shape to nanobacteria.

But why have nanobacteria escaped biologists' notice if they are so abundant?

Robert Folk believes that the minuscule creatures have simply eluded the conventional tools used to study bacteria.

Inside you

Other research suggests that nanobacteria may have direct effects on humans. They may cause kidney stones

[ image: Possible nanobacteria found in limestone]
Possible nanobacteria found in limestone
Scientists in Finland claim to have detected them in kidney stones and harmful calcium deposits elsewhere in the body.

A team from the University of Kuopio say that analyses of 30 human kidney-stone specimens has revealed that all of them contained nanobacteria.

The researchers show that nanobacteria grown in the laboratory produce calcium phosphate formations, much like those found in kidney, gall, and bladder stones.

Since they have found that nanobacteria can be grown in a mixture similar to filtered urine, they may provide valuable information for studying and treating kidney stones.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Sci/Tech Contents

Relevant Stories

10 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech
Magnet theory to life on Mars

23 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech
Life on Mars - new claims

11 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Martian 'bacteria' matched to Earth

25 Aug 98 | Sci/Tech
Planet bacteria

Internet Links

Life on Mars: Nasa

The whole Mars catalog

Queensland University: Nanoworld

Dr Uwins' Research

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

World's smallest transistor

Scientists join forces to study Arctic ozone

Mathematicians crack big puzzle

From Business
The growing threat of internet fraud

Who watches the pilots?

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer