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Are Any Bacteria Visible to the Naked Eye?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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It used to be that scientists needed microscopes to see bacteria, but a new find from the backwaters of a Caribbean mangrove swamp is an eye-opening sea change in the world of microbes. The new species, called Thiomargarita magnifica (meaning “sulfur pearl"), is a huge thin white filament visible to the naked eye. It's about the size and shape of a human eyelash. T. magnifica has an average length of 10 mm, but some individuals can grow to 20 mm.

"These bacteria are about 5,000 times larger than most bacteria," said marine biologist and study author Jean-Marie Volland. Researchers don’t know why T. magnifica is so large, but one theory is that its size may be an adaption to help it avoid being eaten by other organisms.

More about the world's largest bacterium:

  • The T. magnifica bacterium was first discovered in 2009 in the mangrove swamps of Guadeloupe but it was overlooked as it was initially thought to be a fungus. The discovery only recently came to light with publication in scientific journals.

  • The newly discovered organism isn't dangerous, and it can't cause disease in humans. It was found attached to oyster shells and on leaves and branches. They were also found “on glass bottles, plastic bottles, or ropes," said microbiologist Olivier Gros.

  • The researchers have a lot to learn about how this organism operates. “This project has really opened our eyes to the unexplored microbial diversity that exists. We're really just scratching the surface,” explained researcher Shailesh Date.

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