Group of micro-organisms that are without a nucleus and have a single chromosome. They are now known to constitute a separate domain in the tree of life, next to and equally distant from bacteria and eukaryotes. All are strict anaerobes, that is, they are killed by oxygen. This is thought to be a primitive condition and to indicate that the Archaea are related to the earliest life forms, which appeared about 4 billion years ago, when there was little oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. They are found in undersea vents, hot springs, the Dead Sea, and salt pans, and have even adapted to refuse tips.
The recognition of the Archaea as a separate domain unrelated to ordinary bacteria goes back to the work of Carl Woese, who investigated the family tree of methanogenic bacteria using fragments of ribosomal RNA. He concluded that these organisms should be set apart from ordinary bacteria. Although subsequent research revealed many differences between archaea and bacteria (for example in the composition of the cell membranes), the new classification remained controversial until 1996, when the complete genome sequencing of Methanococcus jannaschii (an archeaon that lives in undersea vents at temperatures of around 100°C/212°F) revealed that 56% of its genes were unlike those of any other organism, making the Archaea unique.
Archaea are subdivided into three major groups: the Euryarcheota include methanogenic bacteria and salt-loving archaea (halophiles). The methanogen Methanopyrus kandleri is the record holder for life at high temperatures (as of 2010), following the discovery that it can thrive at 122°C if hydrostatic pressure equivalent to the conditions in its natural habitat is applied. Crenarcheota also include some of those species that live at the highest temperatures of any known living things (hyperthermophiles), such as Pyrococcus furiosus, whose DNA polymerase is used in polymerase chain reaction, and ‘strain 121’, a previous record holder for adaptation to high temperatures. However, some are found at more moderate temperatures. The Korarcheota are only known from their DNA sequences obtained from environmental sampling; as yet very little is known about them.
In 1994 US biologists detected archaea in the Antarctic (where they make up 30% of the single-celled marine biomass), Arctic, Mediterranean, and Baltic Sea.
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