Diversity of Archaea


The Archaea are a group of microbes that form one of three domains of life on Earth. Studies with isolated strains have revealed an archaeal metabolic diversity rivaling that found within the domain Bacteria, and molecular surveys have revealed that archaea occupy a broader range of environments than was suspected based on the physiology of isolates. Archaea are also the most abundant and active microbial component in some environments, typically where their adaptations to chronic energy stress provide selective advantage over bacteria. Ongoing studies of uncultured archaea are likely to reveal important impacts on Earth's elemental and energy cycles.

Key concepts

  • Comparison of small subunit ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA) gene sequences and other cellular characteristics revealed that Archaea are a distinct group of microbes and one of three domains of life on Earth.

  • The majority of archaeal diversity is composed of two kingdoms: the Crenarchaeota and Euryarchaeota.

  • Most of the cultured archaea are ‘extremophiles’, or organisms that are adapted to living under extreme environmental conditions.

  • The common ecological factor among the Archaea is their propensity to thrive under conditions of chronic energy stress.

  • The ‘uncultured majority’ refers to the abundant, widespread, and highly diverse groups of archaea that currently lack cultured isolates.

  • The metabolic functions of some uncultured archaea have been revealed by combining molecular, biochemical and geochemical techniques.

Keywords: Crenarchaeota; Euryarchaeota; methanogen; halophile; hyperthermophile

Figure 1.

Phylogenetic tree of the three domains of life. This tree was calculated from differences in small subunit 16S rRNA gene sequences, with the distance along the branches between any pair of organisms being proportional to the estimated evolutionary distance between them. The red denotes thermophilic and hyperthermophilic archaea. Bar, 0.1 changes per nucleotide. Adapted from Barns et al. .



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Further Reading

Blum P (ed.) (2008) Archaea: New Models for Prokaryotic Biology. Cambridgeshire, UK: Caister Academic Press.

Cavicchioli R (ed.) (2007) Archaea: Molecular and Cellular Biology. Washington, DC: American Society for Microbiology Press.

Garrett RA and Klenk H‐P (eds) (2007) Archaea: Evolution, Physiology, and Molecular Biology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley‐Blackwell.

Garrity GM, Boone DR and Castenholz RW (eds) (2001) Bergey's Manual of Systematic Bacteriology, Volume One: Archaea and the Deeply Branching and Phototrophic Bacteria, 2nd edn. New York, New York: Springer‐Verlag.

Gunde‐Cimerman N, Oren A and Plemenitaš A (2005) Adaptation to Life at High Salt Concentrations in Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. New York, New York: Springer‐Verlag.

Howland JL (2000) The Surprising Archaea: Discovering Another Domain of Life. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

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Swan, Brandon K, and Valentine, David L(Sep 2009) Diversity of Archaea. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000444.pub2]