Archaea (/ɑːrˈkiːə/ (listen) or /ɑːrˈkeɪə/ ar-KEE-ə or ar-KAY-ə) constitute a domain of single-celled microorganisms. These microbes (archaea; singular archaeon) are prokaryotes, meaning they have no cell nucleus. Archaea were initially classified as bacteria, receiving the name archaebacteria (in the Archaebacteria kingdom), but this classification is outdated. Archaeal cells have unique properties separating them from the other two domains of life, Bacteria and Eukarya. Archaea are further divided into multiple recognized phyla. Classification is difficult because most have not been isolated in the laboratory and were only detected by analysis of their nucleic acids in samples from their environment. Archaea and bacteria are generally similar in size and shape, although a few archaea have shapes quite unlike that of bacteria, such as the flat and square-shaped cells of Haloquadratum walsbyi. Despite this morphological similarity to bacteria, archaea possess genes and several metabolic pathways that are more closely related to those of eukaryotes, notably for the enzymes involved in transcription and translation. Other aspects of archaeal biochemistry are unique, such as their reliance on ether lipids in their cell membranes, including archaeols. Archaea use more energy sources than eukaryotes: these range from organic compounds, such as sugars, to ammonia, metal ions or even hydrogen gas. Salt-tolerant archaea (the Haloarchaea) use sunlight as an energy source, and other species of archaea fix carbon, but unlike plants and cyanobacteria, no known species of archaea does both. Archaea reproduce asexually by binary fission, fragmentation, or budding; unlike bacteria and eukaryotes, no known species forms spores. The first observed archaea were extremophiles, living in harsh environments, such as hot springs and salt lakes with no other organisms, but improved detection tools led to the discovery of archaea in almost every habitat, including soil, oceans, and marshlands. They are also part of the microbiota of all organisms, and in the human microbiota they are important in the gut, mouth, and on the skin. Archaea are particularly numerous in the oceans, and the archaea in plankton may be one of the most abundant groups of organisms on the planet. Archaea are a major part of Earth's life, and may play roles in the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle. No clear examples of archaeal pathogens or parasites are known. Instead they are often mutualists or commensals, such as the methanogens (methane-producing strains) that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract in humans and ruminants, where their vast numbers aid digestion. Methanogens are also used in biogas production and sewage treatment, and biotechnology exploits enzymes from extremophile archaea that can endure high temperatures and organic solvents.
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