Geologists plan to open an 830-million-year-old rock salt crystal they believe contains ancient microorganisms that may still be alive.
Researchers from the Geological Society of America first announced their discovery of tiny remains of prokaryotic life and algae inside an ancient halite crystal earlier this month.
These organisms are found within microscopic bubbles of liquid in the crystal, known as fluid inclusions, which can serve as micro-habitats for small colonies to thrive.
The researchers now want to open the crystal to discover whether this ancient life is still alive.
While returning 830 million-year-old life forms to the modern world may not seem like the most reasonable idea, researchers insist it will be carried out with the utmost caution.
Study author Kathy Benison, a geologist at West Virginia University, said NPR.
Researchers have discovered tiny remnants of prokaryotic life and algae inside a halite crystal of the 830-million-year-old Brown Formation in central Australia. Pictured: Liquid inclusions in halite with microorganisms
Organisms are found within fluid inclusions in the crystal, which can serve as micro-habitats for small colonies to thrive. Pictured: liquid inclusions in halite
The extraordinary discovery was initially reported in the journal geology On May 11.
The researchers used a selection of imaging techniques to study fluid inclusions in a piece of halite from the 830-million-year-old Brown Formation in central Australia.
They discovered organic solids and liquids that were consistent in size, shape, and fluorescent response to prokaryotic and algae cells.
The discovery shows that microorganisms can remain well-preserved in halite over hundreds of millions of years.
According to the researchers, this has implications for the search for alien life.
Similar biometric fingerprints can be detected in chemical deposits from Mars, where large salt deposits have been identified as evidence of ancient liquid water reservoirs.
Images of padded halite core slabs from the 830-million-year-old Brown Formation, where the crystal containing microorganisms was found
Map of Australia with approximate location of Empress core 1A (black star), where the halite crystal was mined from
Microorganisms in individual primary fluid inclusions in halite from the Brown Formation, Central Australia
While it may seem implausible that the microorganisms within the crystal are still alive, living prokaryotes have previously been extracted from halite dating back 250 million years, so it is not impossible to live 830 million years.
“The potential survival of microorganisms on geological time scales is not fully understood,” the researchers wrote in their study.
It has been suggested that radiation would destroy organic matter over long periods of time, but Nicastro et al. (2002) found that buried halite 250 million years old was exposed to only trace amounts of radiation.
In addition, microorganisms may survive in fluid inclusions by metabolic changes, including surviving starvation and cyst phases, and coexisting with organic compounds or dead cells that can serve as nutrient sources.
Commenting on the scientists’ plans to open the crystal, Bonnie Baxter, a biologist at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, who was not involved in the study, said the risk of a horrific pandemic is relatively low.
“An ecological organism that has never seen a human before would not have a mechanism to enter us and cause disease,” she told NPR.
“So personally, from a scientific perspective, I’m not afraid of that.”
The first life appeared on Earth at least 300 million years earlier than previously thought
A new study reveals that the first life on Earth appeared at least 3.75 billion years ago – about 300 million years earlier than previously thought.
The revelation is based on the analysis of a fist-sized rock from Quebec, Canada, which is estimated to be between 3.75 and 4.28 billion years old.
The researchers had previously found threads, knobs, and tiny tubes in the rock, which appear to be the work of bacteria. However, not all scientists agreed that these structures were of biological origin.
Now, after further thorough analysis, the team at University College London has discovered a larger and more complex structure within the rock – a trunk with parallel branches on one side about a centimeter long.
They also found hundreds of deformed spheres, or “ellipsoids,” next to tubes and threads.
The researchers say that while some structures can be visualized through chemical reactions by chance, the “tree-like” trunk with parallel branches was likely biological in origin.
This is because no structure created by chemistry alone has been found like it.
So far, the oldest known evidence of life on Earth was a 3.46-billion-year-old rock from Western Australia that contained microfossils resembling worms.
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