Bacteria survives 250 million years



This little bug may be the next best thing to immortality. Sheltered inside deeply buried salt crystals, the tiny Bacillus organism is thought to be 250 million years old, an astounding length of time for anything to keep on living.

Methuselah would be jealous, certainly, and Rip Van Winkle isn’t even in this contest. Until now, the oldest known living thing was another microbe, 30-million-year-old yeast cells found in amber.

The discovery of life that could be 250 million years old is announced in toTday’s issue of Nature by Russell Vreeland and William Rozensweig at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and Dennis Powers, a consulting geologist in Anthony, Texas. DNA tests showed that the tiny organism is related to already-known bacteria called Bacillus marismortui and Virgibacillus pantothenticus.

“We believe,” the scientists wrote, that the bacteria lived 250 million years ago and were “trapped inside a (salt) crystal at the time, and survived within the crystal until the present.”

How the germs managed to live so long is not known, Vreeland and his colleagues said.

The microbe sample was found within a tiny fluid-filled cavity in salt dug from a deposit 1,850 feet underground near Carlsbad, N.M.

If the age is correct – and not all scientists are convinced – it will open new avenues for research. “It’s giving us a new model to study how organisms can live that long,” said microbiologist Raul Cano at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. For example, “What are the biological processes that determine long-term survival?”

Biologist John Parkes at the University of Bristol, in England, wrote in a Nature commentary that there is also the question of “what energy source could last over such a long period?”

If the results are confirmed, Cano said, “it means we have access to much more ancient information than we thought” concerning the history of life on the planet.

Cano added another caution. “Although I think it’s feasible” such bacteria are really so old, “the trouble with all of these experiments, including mine, is the issue of contamination. So we need to have validation,” or someone else repeating the work.

Tongue in cheek, Parkes added that “the next time you sprinkle salt on your food, think of what you might be eating.”

It was Cano and his co-workers who isolated 30-million-year-old yeast cells in 1995. They proved the ancient yeast was alive and well by using it to brew beer. “I’m still drinking it,” he added, “and I would like to make it commercially. It’s quite good beer.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

Members of South County Fire practice onboarding and offboarding a hovering Huey helicopter during an interagency disaster response training exercise at Arlington Municipal Airport on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. The crews learned about and practiced safe entry and exit protocols with crew from Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue before begin given a chance to do a live training. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish, King counties train together for region’s next disaster

Dozens of agencies worked with aviators Tuesday to coordinate a response to a simulated earthquake or tsunami.

Police stand along Linden Street next to orange cones marking pullet casings in a crime scene of a police involved shooting on Friday, May 19, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lake Stevens man identified in Everett manhunt, deadly police shooting

Travis Hammons, 34, was killed by officers following a search for an armed wanted man in a north Everett neighborhood.

Funko mascots Freddy Funko roll past on a conveyor belt in the Pop! Factory of the company's new flagship store on Aug. 18, 2017.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Lawsuit: Funko misled investors about Arizona move

A shareholder claims Funko’s decision to relocate its distribution center from Everett to Arizona was “disastrous.”

1 stabbed at apartment in Lynnwood

The man, 26, was taken to an Everett hospital with “serious injuries.”

A firefighting helicopter carries a bucket of water from a nearby river to the Bolt Creek Fire on Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022, on U.S. Highway 2 near Index, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Red flag fire warning issued west of Cascades

There are “critical fire weather” conditions due to humidity and wind in the Cascades, according to the National Weather Service.

A house fire damaged two homes around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 6, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Photo provided by Marysville Fire District)
Fire burns 2 homes in Marysville, killing 2 dogs

Firefighters responded to a report of a fire north of Lakewood Crossing early Tuesday, finding two houses engulfed in flames.

A transit rider steps onto a Community Transit bus on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Police: Passenger randomly stabs man in neck on bus in Everett

The two passengers reportedly did not know each other before the attack. Police arrested a suspect hours later.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Mountlake Terrace eyes one-time projects for $2.4M in federal funds

Staff recommended $750,000 for a new roof and HVAC at the library, $250,000 toward a nonprofit facility in Lynnwood and more.

The Snohomish River turns along the edge of the Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve at Thomas’ Eddy on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 in Snohomish, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
To build a healthier Snohomish River, more log jams

About $2.8M in grants will help engineer log jams, tear down levees and promote salmon restoration at Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve.

Most Read