BACKGROUND: Scientists have discovered a new species of microbe living in Utah's Great Salt Lake. There is a contest for children to name this new species being held in conjunction with the release of a new children's book called Strange New Species. The deadline for submission is March 31, and the winner will be announced on Earth Day, April 22, 2006.
ABOUT THE SPECIES: The new species is part of a group of organisms called extremophiles because of they can survive in extreme environments that would kill a human being in mere seconds: extreme heat or cold, for example. The new organism is classified as a "halophile," or salt-loving micro-organism, because it thrives in water that is ten times saltier than the sea. The new microbe is rod-shaped and orange-red in color, and measures only 1.5 microns long. (A hundred of these microbes could fit on the head of a pin.) Among its most interesting features is its abundance of carotenoid pigments, which makes it completely resistant to damaging UV rays from the sun. Studying the microbe's unique properties could lead to new ways to protect humans from UV damage.
KINGS PLAY CHESS ON FAT GUYS' STOMACHS -- HOW SCIENTISTS CLASSIFY ANIMALS: Taxonomy is the scientific classification of organisms according to a hierarchy: from kingdom, phylum or division, to class, order, family, genus and species. Take the first letters of each of those categories in order and you get a silly phrase that may help you remember the classification levels. A genus is a category that can contain several different species. A species is a group of organisms with a unique set of characteristics (body shape and behavior, for example) that distinguishes them from other organisms. In a scientific name, the first word is the genus name, while the second word denotes the species. For instance, the newly discovered microbe belongs to the Halorubrum ("salt red") genus; its species name will be determined by the contest. Some 1.7 million species have been identified on earth, but scientists believe the total number is between 5 million and 10 million. Scientists discover thousands of new species every year, but many more need to be discovered and named.
The American Society for Microbiology contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.