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The Little Microbes That Could

on January 22, 2011
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LiveScience: “34,000-Year-Old Organisms Found Buried Alive!Geologists have discovered microbes living inside salt crystals. The twist? The microbes are said to be 34,000 years old!

Geologists have discovered microbes living inside salt crystals. The twist? The microbes are said to be 34,000 years old!

University of Hawaii geologist Brian Schubert found the bacteria during his graduate research. Stuck in a hibernation-like state inside of bubbles within salt crystals, the bacteria were reportedly shrunken and inactive. But Schubert coaxed them back to a reproductive state, growing the microbes in the lab. “It’s 34,000 years old and it has a kid,” he quipped.

Although scientists have previously observed such “hibernation” in bacteria, this is the first confirmed case of successfully “waking” bacteria from such extended (supposedly) slumber. To confirm that their results weren’t simply laboratory contamination, Schubert and his adviser, Binghamton University’s Tim Lowenstein, sent some of the crystals to another lab, which had similar success.

Schubert believes the bacteria survived on algae called Dunaliella that were also stuck in the salt crystals. Nevertheless, aspects of the survival story remain puzzling, as Lowenstein explains: “We’re not sure what’s going on. They need to be able to repair DNA, because DNA degrades with time.”

A decade ago, a team of scientists claimed to have recovered live bacteria from salt crystals 250 million years old. (See our response.) LiveScience notes of that claim, “The results weren’t reproduced, and remain controversial.” We also reported News to Note, April 19, 2008 on DNA supposedly extracted from 250-million-year-old salt crystals.

Even without an explanation or understanding of how such incredible survival is possible, old-earthers continue to trust their dating methods as infallible.

While Schubert’s results were reproduced (and, hence, we can be reasonably confident the crystals were uncontaminated), bacteria surviving for thirty-four millennia still strikes us as quite a stretch, especially considering Lowenstein’s comments. Even without an explanation or understanding of how such incredible survival is possible, old-earthers continue to trust their dating methods as infallible.

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