Groundbreaking Research Involving UC Santa Barbara Shows Some Microbes Have Ability To Self-Mutate

Apr 17, 2017

Some of the planet’s smallest microbes are so small they were unknown until just a few years ago.

Now, a UC Santa Barbara researcher working with other scientists has shown these common yet mysterious organisms have an amazing ability to self-mutate as part of their survival.

Dr. David Valentine is a Professor of Earth Science and Biology with UCSB’s Marine Science Institute. The microbiologist is known for his studies related to oil spills and gas seeps, and his undersea work led him to these little known microbes. 

Valentine says the microbes are so small there’s a reason they went undetected until the last few years. They are so small they passed through filters used to trap microbes.

But, it’s not the size of the organisms, but the unique ability they seem to be able to modify themselves which has researchers like Valentine intrigued.

He says they use the ability to attach themselves to other organisms. Valentine says they aren’t sure if the microbes are parasitic, or that it’s a symbiotic relationship in which both organisms benefit.

Valentine says because these microbes are very common, he and UCSB’s Blair Paul teamed up with researchers at UCLA, and other organizations to try to see if this self-mutating process was widespread among the organism.

Valentine says there is nothing threatening about these microbes. When you hear self-mutating, it sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. In fact, he says these microbes appear to be mutating just to work with other bacteria just to survive. He says ongoing research will look at those relationships.

The research was just published in the scientific journal Nature Biology.