A random dirt sample taken by Canadian researchers while out on a hike was found to contain organisms unlike anything ever seen before. They're so different that they don't fit into the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, or any other kingdom used to classify known organisms, reports CBC.
In fact, a genetic analysis has revealed that these organisms are so distinct that giving them their own kingdom might not be enough. They might need their own supra-kingdom, because all other known related kingdoms are more closely related to one another than they are to these new organisms. To put this in perspective, animals (including us!) and fungi are in different kingdoms but still in the same supra-kingdom. So if these new organisms are in a different supra-kingdom, it means that fungi and humans are more alike than either are to them.
"They represent a major branch… that we didn't know we were missing," said Alastair Simpson, co-author of the new study. "There's nothing we know that's closely related to them."
Researchers estimate that you'd have to go back a billion years — about 500 million years before the first animals arose — before you could find a common ancestor of these new microbes and any other known living things. They're ancient; almost alien.
A biological oddity
Although one of the creatures in the dirt sample was a species new to science, these little beasties aren't entirely unheard of. Related organisms were first discovered back in the 19th century; they were called hemimastigotes, and they've been something of a biological oddity since then. They're so rare that no one has found one recently enough to do a genetic analysis on them, to truly see how they fit into the tree of life. That is, until now.
The weird microbes are characterized by having lots of probing hairs, called flagella, that flail about and grab food. Unlike most known organisms with flagella — which typically move their flagella in coordinated waves — these guys seem to wiggle them in random fashion. They also have deadly harpoons that they can fire at unsuspecting prey, and appear to be adept hunters in the microbial world.
The new species identified by the research team was named Hemimastix kukwesjijk, after Kukwes, a greedy, hairy ogre from the mythology of the Mi'kmaq people, who hail from where the sample was taken.
Researchers are excited about the prospect of next performing an even more complete genetic analysis on their hairy little ogres, and they hope their work might piece together the evolutionary history of life on Earth with more detail and accuracy than ever done before.
"It'll be the one time in my lifetime that we find this sort of thing," said Simpson.