Scientists take detailed pictures of the smallest known life forms

An electron microscope shot of ultra-small bacteria

Just how small can life get? Almost unbelievably small, if you ask a team of Berkeley Lab researchers. They've taken the first detailed electron microscope pictures of the tiniest bacteria known to date -- at a typical 0.009 cubic microns in volume, you could fit 150 of them in an already miniscule e. coli cell. Scientists had to catch the hard-to-spot microbes by using a new portable cryo plunger, which flash-froze groundwater to near absolute zero (about -458F) to keep the cells intact while they were in transit.

The snapshots may not look like much, but they're revealing a lot about lifeforms at this extremely miniscule size. For one thing, their metabolisms are so minimal that they likely depend on resources from other bacteria to stay alive. While there's still a lot that remains a mystery (it's not certain what half of the genes do), this up-close imagery could eventually fill in a lot of blanks in biology -- it's clear that there's a world of unusual organisms that have gone largely unnoticed.

[Image credit: Berkeley Lab]