The researchers have discovered a new group of microscopic organisms, which they have baptized "picobiliphytes": pico because of their extremely small size, measured in millionths of a meter, bili because they contain biliproteins, highly fluorescent substances that transform light into biomass, and phyte meaning they are plants.
The discovery came from carefully analyzing DNA sequences belonging to vast communities of micro-organisms living in the ocean. "There was one group of sequences that just didn't line up with any of the known groups," explains Dr. Lovejoy. "In fact, the divergence of this group from known organisms is as great as the difference between land plants and animals," adds the scientist.
Over this last year the team has been scouring data bases, verifying their results and applying new techniques to their samples. They can now confirm that these new life forms are abundantly distributed throughout northern seas. They have yet to be brought into culture, but can be seen using advanced microscopy techniques.
"It's a very exciting discovery," comments Dr. Lovejoy. "The ocean covers 70% of planet earth and we are only now coming to appreciate its rich and complex biodiversity."
The other members of the team responsible for this discovery are Fabrice Not, Khadidja Romari, and Daniel Vaulot from Université Pierre et Marie Curie (France); Klaus Valentin, Kerstin Töbe, and Linda Medlin from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (Germany); and Ramon Massana from Institut de Ciències del Mar (Spain).