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Rare microbes lead scientists to discover new branch on the tree of life

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Canadian researchers have discovered a new kind of organism that’s so different from other living things that it doesn’t fit into the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, or any other kingdom used to classify known organisms.

Two species of the microscopic organisms, called hemimastigotes, were found in dirt collected on a whim during a hike in Nova Scotia by Dalhousie University graduate student Yana Eglit.

A genetic analysis shows they’re more different from other organisms than animals and fungi (which are in different kingdoms) are from each other, representing a completely new part of the tree of life, Eglit and her colleagues report this week in the journal Nature.

“They represent a major branch… that we didn’t know we were missing,” said Dalhousie biology professor Alastair Simpson, Eglit’s supervisor and co-author of the new study.

“There’s nothing we know that’s closely related to them.”

In fact, he estimates you’d have to go back a billion years — about 500 million years before the first animals arose — before you could find a common ancestor of hemimastigotes and any other known living things.

This is the part of the Bluff Wilderness Trail in Nova Scotia where graduate student Yana Eglit collected some dirt that ended up containing two species of rare hemimastigotes. (Submitted by Yana Eglit)

The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail.

Back at the lab, she soaked the dirt in water, which often revives microbes that have gone dormant, waiting for the next big rainstorm. Over the next few weeks, she checked on the dish through a microscope to see what might be swimming around.

Strange movements

Then, one day, about three weeks later, she saw something that caught her eye — something shaped like the partially opened shell of a pistachio. It had lots of hairs, called flagella, sticking out. Most known microbes with lots of flagella move them in co-ordinated waves, but not this one, which waved them in a more random fashion. 

“It’s as if these cells never really learned that they have many flagella,” Eglit said with a laugh. She had seen something with that strange motion once before, a few years ago, and recognized it as a rare hemimastigote.

Hemimastigotes were first seen and described in the 19th century. But at that time, no one could figure out how they fit into the evolutionary tree of life. Consequently, they’ve been “a tantalizing mystery” to microbiologists for quite a long time, Eglit said.

Light microscopes show the two hemimastigotes, Spironema, left, and Hemimastix kukwesjijk, found in the same dish. (Yana Eglit/Nature)

Like animals, plants, fungi and ameobas — but unlike bacteria — hemimastigotes have complex cells with mini-organs called organelles, making them part of the “domain” of organisms called eukaryotes rather than bacteria or archaea.

About 10 species of hemimastigotes have been described over more than 100 years. But up until now, no one had been able to do a genetic analysis to see how they were related to other living things.

Realizing that she had something very rare and special, Eglit flagged another graduate student Gordon Lax, who specializes in genetic analyses of individual microbes — a new and tricky technique — to see where they fit in the evolutionary tree. The pair dropped everything to analyze the new microbe.

The co-authors of the new study include, left to right, Dalhousie University postdoctoral researcher Laura Eme, Eglit and fellow graduate student Gordon Lax. (Michelle Léger)

New species

Eglit wanted to see if she could find more of the creatures in the dish, and, as she was looking, she spotted another kind of hemimastigote.

To our tremendous surprise, two of these extremely rarely seen organisms ended up in one dish.”

There were more of the second kind, which turned out to be a new species.

The researchers named itHemimastix kukwesjijk after Kukwes, a greedy, hairy ogre from the mythology of the local Mi’kmaq people. (The suffix “jijk” means “little.”)

Eglit watched carefully as it hunted. Hemimastix shoots little harpoons called extrusomes to attack prey such as Spumella, a relative of aquatic microbes called diatoms. It grasps its prey by curling its flagella around it, bringing it to a “mouth” on one end of the cell called a capitulum “as it presumably sucks its cytoplasm out,” Eglit said.

Hemimastix kukwesjijk feeds on its prey in this microscope image. It attacks the prey with harpoon-like organs, then uses its flagella to bring the prey to its mouth, called a capitulum, and sucks out the juices or cytoplasm. (Yana Eglit/Nature)

Once she knew what it ate, she reared its prey in captivity so she could also feed and breed captive Hemimastix: “We were able to domesticate it, in a way.”

That means scientists can now give captive specimens to other scientists to study, and their rarity is not the issue it was before.

Based on the genetic analysis they’ve done so far, the Dalhousie team has determined that hemimastigotes are unique and different enough from other organisms to form their own “supra-kingdom” — a grouping so big that animals and fungi, which have their own kingdoms, are considered similar enough to be part of the same supra-kingdom.

They are now doing a more complete genetic analysis of Hemimastix. That’s expected to turn up new data that will help scientists piece together the evolutionary history of life on Earth with more detail and more accuracy.

Eglit says it’s “extremely exciting” that it’s still possible to discover something so different from all known life on Earth.

“It really shows how much more there is out there.”

But Simpson noted that discoveries like this one are pretty rare: “It’ll be the one time in my lifetime that we find this sort of thing.”

Biology professor Alastair Simpson tells Mainstreet host Bob Murphy how a microbe found in a dirt sample from the Bluff Wilderness Hiking Trail near Halifax led to the discovery of a previously unknown branch in the evolutionary ‘Tree Of Life.’ The research has just been published in the journal Nature. 8:23

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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