Background: Archaea represent a significant fraction of Earth's biodiversity, yet they remain much less well understood than Bacteria. Gene surveys, a few metagenomic studies, and some single-cell sequencing projects have revealed numerous little-studied archaeal phyla. Certain lineages appear to branch deeply and may be part of a major phylum radiation. The structure of this radiation and the physiology of the organisms remain almost unknown.
Results: We used genome-resolved metagenomic analyses to investigate the diversity, genomes sizes, metabolic capacities, and potential roles of Archaea in terrestrial subsurface biogeochemical cycles. We sequenced DNA from complex sediment and planktonic consortia from an aquifer adjacent to the Colorado River (USA) and reconstructed the first complete genomes for Archaea using cultivation-independent methods. To provide taxonomic context, we analyzed an additional 151 newly sampled archaeal sequences. We resolved two new phyla within a major, apparently deep-branching group of phyla (a superphylum). The organisms have small genomes, and metabolic predictions indicate that their primary contributions to Earth's biogeochemical cycles involve carbon and hydrogen metabolism, probably associated with symbiotic and/or fermentation-based lifestyles.
Conclusions: The results dramatically expand genomic sampling of the domain Archaea and clarify taxonomic designations within a major superphylum. This study, in combination with recently published work on bacterial phyla lacking cultivated representatives, reveals a fascinating phenomenon of major radiations of organisms with small genomes, novel proteome composition, and strong interdependence in both domains.
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