July 30 (UPI) -- Until now, many scientists thought microbes rarely go extinct. But new research suggests bacteria species disappear at surprisingly high rates.
According to the latest analysis, when bacteria do go extinct, they fade away. The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, showed bacteria are rarely snuffed out by mass extinction events.
Scientists used advanced computer models to simulate microbial evolution over the last few billion years.
"Bacteria rarely fossilize, so we know very little about how the microbial landscape has evolved over time," Stilianos Louca, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, said in a news release. "Sequencing and math helped us fill in the bacterial family tree, map how they've diversified over time, and uncover their extinctions."
Simulations showed anywhere from 45,000 to 95,000 bacteria species have been lost during the last million years, a significant extinction rate. Currently, there are between 1.4 and 1.9 million active bacteria lineages on Earth.
"While modern bacterial diversity is undoubtedly high, it's only a tiny snapshot of the diversity that evolution has generated over Earth's history," said Louca.
Perhaps more surprising than the microbe taxa's high rate of extinction, is that microbial biodiversity remains undeterred. The ability to avoid mass extinction events has allowed bacteria on Earth to continue to diversify exponentially.
"This study wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago," said Michael Doebeli, UBC mathematician and zoologist. "Today's availability of massive sequencing data and powerful computational resources allowed us to perform the complex mathematical analysis."