Three-dimensional analysis of the structure and ecology of a novel, ultra-small archaeon

Luis R. Comolli, Brett J. Baker, Kenneth H. Downing, Cristina E. Siegerist, Jillian F. Banfield

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97 Citations (Scopus)


Fully understanding the biology of acid mine drainage (AMD) is central to our ability to control and manipulate its environmental impact. Although genomics and biogeochemical methods are relatively well established in the field, their combination with high-resolution imaging of intact members of microbial biofilm communities has not yet reached its full potential. Here, we used three-dimensional (3D) cryogenic electron tomography to determine the size and ultrastructure of intact ARMAN cells, a novel ultra-small archaeon, and sought evidence for their interactions with other members of its community. Within acid mine drainage biofilms, apparently free-living ARMAN cells from a deeply branched archaeal lineage have volumes of 0.009-0.04 μm3 (mean ∼0.03±0.01 μm3), only ∼92 ribosomes, yet are frequent hosts for replicating viruses. Organization within the periplasm and partitioning of ribosomes to the inner surface of the cytoplasmic membrane may be factors in size minimization. Most cells contain enigmatic tubular structures of unknown function. The low ribosome copy number per unit volume, indicative of slow growth rates and targeting of cells by diverse viruses may account for the low abundance of ARMAN cells compared with other biofilm community members. Our results provide the first 3D analysis of structural features of these novel and enigmatic cells and their interactions with at least two types of viruses. Our findings also emphasize that new biological phenomena remain to be discovered among lower abundance organisms from novel uncultivated lineages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)159-167
Number of pages9
JournalThe ISME Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Acid mine drainage (AMD)
  • Archaea
  • Biofilm
  • Cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET)
  • Fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH)

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