A multicellular organism that lives without oxygen


You're looking at the first multi-cellular, anaerobic organism known to humans. Anaerobic, of course, means this little critter lives entirely without oxygen. We've long known that single-celled organisms could live this way, but this discovery comes as a bit of surprise. Even more fascinating (to me, at least) is the fact that this organism, part of a species called Loricifera, has no mitochondria. I didn't realize this, but anaerobic organisms have an entirely different organelle, called hydrogenosomes, that power their cells. I'm not sure whether hydrogenosomes have the same sort of origin story as mitochondria—i.e., separate organisms that took up residence in a host cell and became part of its machinery—but that's the first thing I'm researching tonight when I get a chance.


  1. “I will call you Squishy, and you will be mine. And you will be my Squishy.”

    Seriously, though – this is the coolest thing I’ve seen in years.

    1. And you are pink and look like a fuzzy umbrella. Squishy is a good name. I will hug you now.

    2. I accidentally reported your comment. I wanted to give it a thumbs up, but apparently the ‘!’ is to report it . . . my bad

  2. Very cool! I was wondering why it is that shocking colour of pink and found that the first link explains it, it was a kind of dye that showed the researchers that it was alive:

    “The animals took up radioactively tagged leucine (an amino acid), and a fluorescent probe that labels living cells, evidence that they were alive when they were collected.”

  3. This is the kind of stuff that makes me think about life hitchhiking on Martian meteorites. Works in a rather different manner than the “usual” critter.

  4. This kind of stuff makes me happy.

    I appreciate that boing boing has a duty to bring Terrible Things to public attention, and it fulfils this vital role well, but one of the original attractions of boing boing is its many Wonderful Things, of which this is one.

  5. I want to be able to live without oxygen!
    What are these hydrogenosomes, and where can I buy some?
    Advice pls.

      1. Wow, the first, best link that popped up on your Google link was a link to your link. Tautology FTW.

  6. If hydrogenosomes evolved from mitochondria, does that imply that these organisms moved into the salt brine from oxygen rich waters long ago and evolved from aerobic to anaerobic creatures? Or were their ancestors never aerobic?

    1. They definitely evolved from aerobic ancestors. Loricifera are animals, thought related to roundworms, and this is not actually the first known species – there are about two dozen. They were first found in the ’80s in marine sands, and the same guy found another new group in 2000 (the Micrognathozoa), so there’s apparently a lot to discover there.

      Hydrogenosomes show up in very different lineages: two groups of ciliate protozoa, one of flagellate protozoa, and one of fungi, at the very least. All of them have aerobic relatives with mitochondria, so they must have evolved several times independently. Finding them in an animal, though, is surprising and very neat.

      It doesn’t mean it’s the sort of thing that can survive in space, though. They still need water and food; the difference is that instead of burning it to CO2 and water, they’re fermenting it to CO2 and hydrogen.

      For those who are interested in details, there’s a very comprehensive book on hydrogenosomes here:

  7. I bet they find out that hydrogenosomes have ancient DNA and were at one time free-living anaerobic bacteria (similar to the biologists think mitochondria and chloroplasts evolved).

  8. I for one am happy to greet our new overlords and am always amazed at how life persists no matter how badly we humans screw things up.

  9. ZOMG! Run! Hide! the Rifters have arrived. Sure hope Lenie Clarke didn’t bring that back up to the surface!

  10. Lots of animals — even fish! — can live anaerobically, and do at need. Most of them need oxygen sometimes, e.g. for reproduction. What’s unique about this one is that it can’t use oxygen.

  11. Great article….always great to see how life adapts to various environments…also makes me wonder how many oxygen-deprived people are out there that are now the slaves of Daddy Cthulhu and his bad dream machine….or just on par for the darwin awards….

  12. This is one great find. I guess I will spend tzhis evening looking around the web for more info about it.

    Makes you wonder what venues life has taken elswhere.

  13. You probably found this out already, Maggie, but:

    ‘Biochemical analysis of hydrogenosomal Hsp60 [heat shock protein 60] shows that the mature protein isolated from the organelle lacks a short, N-terminal sequence, similar to that observed for most nuclear-encoded mitochondrial matrix proteins. Moreover, phylogenetic analyses of hydrogenosomal Hsp70, Hsp60, and Hsp10 show that these proteins branch within a monophyletic group composed exclusively of mitochondrial homologues. These data establish that mitochondria and hydrogenosomes have a common eubacterial ancestor and imply that the earliest-branching eukaryotes contained the endosymbiont that gave rise to mitochondria in higher eukaryotes.’

    “A common evolutionary origin for mitochondria and hydrogenosomes”, E T Bui, P J Bradley, and P J Johnson (PNAS September 3, 1996 vol. 93 no. 18 9651-9656, http://www.pnas.org/content/93/18/9651.abstract)

  14. We’ll all be glad they’re here when Mitochondria Eve rises up and starts burning people to ash as part of her Mitochondria Revolution.

  15. How in the world did Noah keep the oxygen out of his ark in the Loricifera section? We need to forward this to the creation museum stat.

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