Bacteria Back from the Grave

Lazarus Bacteria

by Dr. Georgia Purdom on July 1, 2018; last featured October 23, 2022
Featured in Answers Magazine
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Scientists claim some bacteria have been resurrected after hundreds of millions of years. But what’s really happening?

What do the person Lazarus from the biblical account and Lazarus bacteria have in common? They share the same name and both have been resurrected from the dead—well, sort of.

In John 11, we read that Jesus miraculously brought Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days. Lazarus bacteria, however, have been “dead” much longer. According to conventional (evolutionary) dating, the oldest resurrected bacteria came from a salt crystal that was 250 million years old. Bacteria have also been resurrected from insects fossilized in amber, ice, permafrost, and even Antarctic rock—all claimed to be tens of thousands to several million years old.

How are bacteria resurrected? Essentially samples are removed from inside the source (ice, rock, etc.) under very sterile conditions to avoid contamination with modern bacteria. Then the sample is placed in a nutrient-rich medium, and sometimes the formerly entombed bacteria begin to grow very slowly.

But are Lazarus bacteria really resurrected from the dead? As I said in my opening statement—sort of. Bacteria are master survivors; and when conditions are unfavorable for growth, some bacterial species can form spores. These spores have tough outer coats that protect the bacteria when they enter a dormant state. Whenever conditions are favorable again, the spore coat dissolves and the bacteria start actively growing and reproducing again.

However, in recent years, scientists have started to question whether these so-called Lazarus bacteria are really surviving these long periods of time and harsh conditions in a spore state. Radioactive decay from elements surrounding them would damage DNA; and in a dormant or spore state, the bacteria could not make repairs. After supposed hundreds of thousands or millions of years, the DNA would be too damaged for the bacteria to survive when conditions were again favorable.

Research has shown many Lazarus bacteria are instead very slowly metabolizing and repairing damaged DNA. Bacteria need a source of water with nutrients to metabolize, and it appears that small “veins” of water may have been trapped alongside the bacteria when they were entombed in the ice, rock, or amber. Some of these bacteria also produce antifreeze proteins (AFPs). Similar proteins in fish that live in icy conditions are known to bind to tiny ice crystals and prevent them from growing. Presumably, they do something similar in bacteria.

Evolutionary scientists are very interested in Lazarus bacteria for two main reasons. The first reason is that they think studying them can give us insight into the ecology and climate that existed hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago. Of course, this is based on their assumption that radiometric dating of the rocks, ice, amber, and salt crystals is accurate. The second reason for interest is that bacteria, which can survive in very harsh, extreme conditions on Earth, could also possibly survive on Mars, Europa (an icy moon of Jupiter), or comets. This matters to evolutionists because of one popular belief of how life originated on earth, called panspermia. According to this model, single-celled organisms like bacteria first evolved elsewhere in the universe and then came to earth via comets or on debris from planets and moons as they formed. Bacteria are so complex that even evolutionary scientists have a difficult time believing that they evolved in just one billion years. The universe, however, is believed by them to be around 13.8 billion years old, giving additional time for bacteria to evolve. The problem is that space is a very harsh environment (extreme radiation, extreme temperatures, lack of oxygen, and so on), and so they would need mechanisms to survive the long journey to earth. Some evolutionary scientists believe that Lazarus bacteria may hold the key.

While it is reasonable to believe that ongoing metabolism (albeit slow) and antifreeze proteins may assist the Lazarus bacteria for a period of time in extreme conditions, is it reasonable that this process would allow them to survive for millions of years or long journeys in space?

Bacteria must have a source of nutrients for metabolism to occur. Repair of DNA, making proteins, and other basic cellular functions take energy; and producing energy takes a food source. Even if small amounts of water and nutrients were trapped with the bacteria when they became entombed, it would be inadequate to nourish the bacteria for millions of years or long journeys in space.

Soft tissue finds in dinosaur fossils have raised similar concerns. Evolutionists agree that structures like proteins and cells shouldn’t last more than one million years, yet dinosaur fossils are supposedly tens to hundreds of millions of years old. Dinosaur soft tissue discoveries and the ability to resurrect bacteria are instead consistent with both being much younger. They were fossilized or entombed just a few thousand years ago as a result of the flood or catastrophic events that followed.

The similarity between DNA sequences of Lazarus bacteria and modern bacteria is another indication that they really can’t be that old.

The similarity between DNA sequences of Lazarus bacteria and modern bacteria is another indication that they really can’t be that old. If the environments on ancient earth or even outer space are very different from modern earth (which would be expected), then these ancient bacteria should have very different DNA sequences from modern bacteria. Different environments would necessitate the ability to do different things to survive. The funny thing is that the sequences of Lazarus bacteria and modern bacteria are quite similar. In fact, most of the time microbiologists have no problem identifying what genus the Lazarus bacteria belong to. If millions of years of evolution have occurred, why do the modern bacteria have such similar DNA to the Lazarus bacteria? This is another indication that the bacteria were entombed just a few thousand years ago.

Lazarus bacteria not only help to confirm a young earth and give glory to the design of an amazing Creator God who equipped bacteria to survive very harsh conditions, but they also point to an important spiritual truth. We are dead in our sins and live in a very broken and fallen world. Only by the saving grace of Christ can we be saved from our sins, receive new life, and live victoriously in a fallen world until we spend eternity with Jesus.

Dr. Georgia Purdom is a speaker and researcher for Answers in Genesis. She earned her doctorate from Ohio State University in molecular genetics and spent six years as a professor of biology at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University.

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