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This Bacterium Is Probably The Smallest Organism Possible

It's tinier than you think. It's even tinier than many scientists thought possible.

Posted on March 9, 2015, at 1:03 p.m. ET

This adorable little blob may represent the smallest size at which a living organism can exist.

newscenter.lbl.gov / Via Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

It could be cute?

Alex Kasprak for BuzzFeed/Berkeley Laboratory

Photographed using high-powered cryogenic transmission electron microscopy, these images (published recently in Nature Communications) are the first detailed observations of what are termed "ultramicrobacteria."

The question of how small a free-living organism can be lacks a scientific consensus. The discovery of these ultra-small bacteria lowers that limit to a level some scientists thought to be impossible. The existence of such small organisms has been debated for two decades, but now we know for sure they are for real. What we don't know, though, is what they are all about.

"These newly described ultra-small bacteria are an example of a subset of the microbial life on earth that we know almost nothing about," said Jill Banfield, an Earth sciences professor at UC Berkeley and a scientist at the Berkeley Laboratory, in a press release.

We do know, though, that they are crazy small. They have an average volume of 0.009 cubic microns (a micron is one millionth of a meter).

So how small is 0.009 cubic microns?

About 150,000 of these adorable bundles of joy could fit on the tip of an average human's hair.

Sebastian Kaulitzki/ThinkStock

Around 150 of them could fit inside an average e. coli bacteria cell.

selvanegra / ThinkStock

You could fit more of them in a grain of sand then there are humans in Belgium.

Alex Kasprak for BuzzFeed / 3quarks / ThinkStock

Over 50 quadrillion (one million billion) of these little rapscallions could fit in an average bottle of water.

Siri Stafford / ThinkStock

It's pretty incredible to think about how ubiquitous these things are and how little we know about them.

Alex Kasprak for BuzzFeed / CSIRO / Via commons.wikimedia.org

Editor's note: This image of ultra-small bacteria on a human hair is not to scale. Bacteria do not have faces, either.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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