Last year, scientists discovered a unique, energy-generating, light-absorbing protein previously unknown to exist in oceanic life. They named the protein proteorhodopsin.1 The bacteria that harbor it are a distinct phylogenetic group known as SAR86. This year, scientists learned that as much as 10 percent of the ocean's surface is occupied by these proteorhodopsin-containing bacteria--as many as 1x105 cells per milliliter of sea water.2

The researchers, led by marine microbiologist Edward DeLong and his postdoc associate Oded Béjà at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif., used what is sometimes referred to as "environmental genomics"--the application of bioinformatics and functional genomics to the study of ecology. Although scientists have been using this sort of large-scale bioinformatic approach to analyze genetic material of marine microbes since the early 1990s, Stephen Giovannoni, director of the molecular and cellular biology program at Oregon State University in Corvallis,...

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