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6 Wonderful Microbes and Their Scientific Names

The microscopic world holds cuteness, wonder, and diversity. Biology extends far beyond the vertebrates.

Some bacteria can breathe rocks. Others glow in the dark. The world of microbes goes far beyond putrefiers and pathogens.

Coccolithicus pelagicus

The coccoliths are the lovely little discs that piece together into a calcium ball that is this round, coccospheric algae is made of. Apparently, this shape-description lies in the Greek root kokkos, for berry. Lithos, of course, refers to stone (calcium carbonate, after all, is a stony substance contributing to geological formations like the White Cliffs of Dover). And pelagicus? That refers to the ocean’s pelagic regions – C. pelagicus is one of the phytoplanktonic superstars doing carbon fixation far from the coast, out in the open ocean.

Thermus aquaticus

Heatloving water dweller. This little guy was found in Yellowstone’s Hot Springs before we knew that was possible (or that thermophilic bacteria was a thing). It’s enzymes are why you get to spend so much time on PCRs: Taq polymerase allows you to process DNA at high temperatures, and was discovered in this heat-loving bacteria.

The Vibrio cousins

I know you instantly associate this genus with a pandemic. Vibrio cholerae is, yes, the vicious cholera pathogen. It’s also bioluminescent. Vibrio fischeri also glows in the dark – and is symbiotic with the absolutely adorable Hawaiian Bobtail Squid (Euprymna scolopes). This relationship lead to the discovery of quorum sensing, which is huge in microbiome and biofilm studies right now. This glow comes from the lux gene, which transcribes into the protein luciferase. Lots of bioluminescent algae have luciferase, including the California coast’s dinoflagellate population.

Shewanella oneidensis

Not only is Shewanella fun to say, oneidensis comes from its discovery site at Lake Oneida, which is named for the American Oneida tribe. Oneida means “People of the Standing Stone,” which by happenstance is also fitting for the species: S. oneidensis breathes stone to survive. Chemolithoautotrophs use rocky, metallic substrates instead of oxygen to capture electrons. This remarkable metabolism involves selecting for electrons with a particular spin.


A favorite in biology labs, this freshwater algae comes in lovely hollow circles enclosing little green spheres. Their name? From the Latin volvere – “to rotate.” And yes, a quick check under the microscope shows that these beautiful algae roll about to swim.

Thalassiosira fluviatilis

While technically it’s now T. weissflogii (unfortunate, as it has no flagellum), this diatom is found in marine, estuarine, and freshwater habitats in the US. Thus, the thalasso (sea) and fluvia (river) terms served it well. As a diatom, it has an ornate silica skeleton, leading to possibilities in genetically-encoded nanotechnology.

What are your favorite microbes to inspect under a microscope? What do the scientific names mean of your favorite bacteria?

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