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Scientists have discovered the world’s largest bacteria in a mangrove swamp in the Caribbean.

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Most of the bacteria they are microscopic, but this one is so big that it can be seen with the naked eye.

The thin, white filament about the length of an eyelash “is by far the largest bacterium known to date,” said marine biologist Jean-Marie Volland of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-author of a paper reporting announced the discovery Thursday in the journal Science.

Co-author Olivier Gros, a biologist at the University of the French West Indies and Guiana, found the first specimen of the bacterium—called thiomargarita magnifica, or “magnificent sulfur pearl”—adhering to sunken leaves of a mangrove swamp in the archipelago of Guadeloupe in 2009.

But at the time he did not know that it was a bacterium due to its surprising size: these bacteria measure an average of 9 millimeters (a third of an inch). It was only after its genetic analysis that the organism was determined to be a single bacterial cell.

“This is an amazing discovery,” said Petra Lewin, a microbiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved in the study. “It raises the question of how many giant bacteria like these exist, and reminds us that we should never, ever underestimate bacteria.”

Gros also found these giant bacteria attached to oyster shells, stones, and glass bottles in the bog.

Scientists have yet to grow it in the lab, but the researchers say the cell has an unusual structure in bacteria. One crucial difference is that it has a large central compartment, or vacuole, which allows some cellular functions to be carried out in that controlled environment, rather than throughout the cell.

“Having developed this large central vacuole definitely helps the cell get around physical limitations. about how big a cell can be,” said Manuel Campos, a biologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, who was not involved in the study.

The researchers said they were not sure why the bacterium is so large, but co-author Volland hypothesizes that it could be an adaptation to prevent smaller organisms from eating it.

With AP information

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J. A. Allen

Author, blogger, freelance writer. Hater of spiders. Drinker of wine. Mother of hellions.