Salty microbe may be world's oldest

Dylan Thuras is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Dylan is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer.


The Kansas Underground Salt Museum would be a curious site all on its own. Sixty-five stories below the ground of Hutchinson, Kansas sits a massive salt mine with salt veins stretching from Kansas all the way to New Mexico, and comes complete with an underground salt museum and tram tour. There is, however, an even more unusual aspect to this site. What might be the world's oldest organism was reanimated from the salty walls of this mine.

Deep in the mine, within a pocket of salt water trapped in a 250 million-year-old salt crystal, two biologists and a geologist discovered the 2-9-3 virgibacillus bacteria. This would be unremarkable save for the fact that this bacteria was 100 million years older than the dinosaurs... and it was still alive.

Bacteria have the ability to go into a kind of semi-permanent hibernation, but survival for this long was unheard of. After lying dormant in the salt crystal for 250 million years, the scientists added fresh nutrients and a new salt solution, and the ancient bacteria "re-animated."

Dr. Russell Vreeland, one of the biologists who found the bacteria, pointed out that bacteria can survive the forces acceleration via rubble thrown into space via a meteor impact. If it is possible for a bacteria to survive being off the planet and to stay alive within a salt chunk for 250 million years, then in a sort of "reverse-exogenesis" it may be possible that earth's own microbes are already out there.

"When man goes to the stars, our microbes will be waiting for us," Vreeland said.

Today the antiquity of the bacteria is still being tested. For a great roundup of the objections to and data backing up the bacteria try here at American Scientist. For more on the mine, which also stores the master prints of thousands of Hollywood films such as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, check the Atlas page here and more about the scientists on this excellent blog post at The Lope.


  1. That sounds more interesting than anything containing the words “Kansas” or “Salt Museum” has any right to be.

  2. I think I saw this episode. Did the scientists disappear suddenly after the microbe started reproducing rapidly? Time to call in the Torchwood team.

  3. Can we start shooting some of these microbes to Mars to engender a biosphere there? I know that we should really be looking for signs of previously existing life before we interfere, but I also worry that the current infrastructure that supports space travel may not last, allowing us only this small window in time to spread life through the solar system and beyond. I propose putting hibernating microbes onto satellites around Mars with planned orbital decays of hundreds of years. This would give us plenty of time to search for life and remove the satellites, if necessary. And if we somehow lost the ability to launch space probes because of [insert apocalyptic scenario here] the satellites would eventually crash/land, release the life forms and give them a small chance of surviving, evolving and wondering what it would be like to go to Earth.

    1. Plate tectonics play a key role in maintaining Earth’s atmosphere. Mars seems to be dead in that regard and, if so, probably can’t have a biosphere.

  4. “When man goes to the stars, our microbes will be waiting for us.”

    So, we should bring hand sanitizer on space missions.

  5. “When man goes to the stars, our microbes will be waiting for us.”

    And will greet us with “So what took you so long? We’re been waiting eons

  6. And the best thing about the salt mines is the tram tour. They used to store old TV show films in one section and they still give away the old canisters in which the films used to be stored. If you get this close to Wichita, Kansas go see the site where the first sit-in occurred during the civil rights era. Its not commonly known but it happened two years BEFORE the Greensboro sit-in. I would also go see a movie at the Warren theatres. They have THX sound in ALL of their theatres and first class seating. (Yes,its my hometown)

  7. We went here during the Dawn Patrol meeting in Hutchinson in February.

    It is awesome and not claustrophobia-inspiring. They still store lots and lots of stuff for the movie companies, and now the museum has a selection of exhibits of what is stored.

    They also had a special exhibit about the microbes.

    Because it was winter, they were giving a two-fer, but it would be well worth the $15 to see it. Plus, during our horrendously hot Kansas/Missouri summers, it would be nice and cool.

  8. I can’t imagine a way to find out if one block of salt has an ancient microscopic life form or not without testing it. I wonder how many pieces they try to find one with old bacteria inside…

  9. Does anyone else find it ironic that the oldest known living organism was found in KANSAS – and that it’s way, way, WAYYYY more than 6,000 years old? Guess then Kansan schools will have to cancel their field trips to the Salt Museum now.

  10. Salt microbe deniers are a coming, don’t fret anon. And yes, the site will be bombed by some nutjob soon enough.

    And 3 & 4 pretty much got to my two thoughts first. I was just so impressed I had to leave this inane bit of text here.

    Mind blown indeeeeeeed.

  11. Hutchinson Kansas is also home to an awesome space museum. They’ve got all sorts of old rockets and memorabilia, including V1 and V2 rockets, and the command module from the Apollo 13 mission. They even have a moon rock. It’s definitely worth the trip.

  12. The American Scientist link is awesome, by the way. Lots of gloriously detailed skeptical arguments and a series of slow, patient attempts to rebut them. Rarely if ever does the popular literature on science capture the flavor of this process.

  13. @ Antinous

    I don’t understand your argument, but if you want plate tectonics maybe it would be possible to push Phobos and Deimos into lower orbits. I doubt current rocket technology is powerful enough, but maybe we could play cosmic billiards with a well-placed nuclear weapon and hope the rocks don’t break apart. Or we could put life on Europa.

    1. I don’t understand your argument, but if you want plate tectonics maybe it would be possible to push Phobos and Deimos into lower orbits.

      My dim understanding is that plate tectonics releases a lot of gasses and that maintains the carbon cycle. I think the molten core is the key factor, but solid evidence on Martian geology is still spotty.

  14. i’m probably overlooking something here, but i would assume that the very first bacteria is still alive (asexual reproduction being what it is).

  15. To everyone promoting seeding other planets with our bacteria I’d like to point to the wonderful result smallpox and bubonic plague had on unexposed life forms on our planet.

  16. It is really surprised that how could the bugs possibly survive all that time, century after century, millennium after millennium, and suddenly wake up all perky when put into a nutrient-rich petri dish?

    And it is great that scientist take great care in growing and storing these ancient microbes in secure lab environments.

  17. I’m assuming that the reason they store very valuable films down there is the same reason they store transuranic waste in salt formations in southern NM.

    “Waste is placed in rooms 2,150 feet (655 m) underground that have been excavated within a 3,000 foot (1000 m) thick salt formation (Salado and Castile Formations) where salt tectonics has been stable for more than 250 million years[citation needed]. Because of plasticity effects salt and water will flow to any cracks that develop, it was chosen as a host medium for the WIPP project. Because drilling or excavation in the area will be hazardous long after the area is being actively used, there are plans to construct markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion for the next ten thousand years.”

    Hella interesting…

  18. Didn’t this happen in the best episode of the X-Files? The one in the ice station, that is, and the frozen organism. Anyone?

  19. Sounds like the beginning of a Michael Crichton novel.

    But seriously, I will probably visit Kansas as a tourist sometime in the future, so I might check this place out. There is a Blackbird at the Space Center mentioned in comment #21, and I must visit them all.

  20. @ #28

    I thought the molten core produced an electro-magnetic field which shields a planet from solar winds. When Mars’ core cooled, the field was lost, and ions from the sun blew the atmosphere away. Or something.

  21. Sorry – DNA is thermodynamically unstable. The only reason life can persist as long as it does is by constantly repairing its DNA. If a bacterium were kept in suspended animation for even a thousand years, it’d require a good deal of molecular repair to its DNA before it could boot up.

  22. Grew up in Hutch (want to seem local call it that) – and remember a time or two a house would just sink into the ground because of sink holes.

    Loved the Cosmosphere too – well worth the trek – and be sure to visit the state fair too. :-)

  23. Awesome!
    Anyone interested might want to explore the subjects of: pleomorphism and cell wall deficient forms.
    Someday our microbiology texts will be thrown out, or re-written…as soon as the ivory tower accepts that they aren’t completely right about the life cycle of very small critters.

  24. “Sorry – DNA is thermodynamically unstable”

    DNA is unstable, but it changes extremely slowly under certain conditions. DNA preserved in salt would have no contact with water, and an awful lot of biological reactions simply stop without water as a medium. These bacteria were probably used to enduring drought, so they have already wrapped up their DNA with various forms of protection. Their DNA is largely unreactive, and they can only start up again when hydrated.

    Many bacteria, adapted to extreme conditions, are able to repair their DNA, even when it is pretty smashed up. I read an article on one reconstruction strategy, and basically the bacteria reassembled its genome from tagged fragments.

    Even when water is present, life forms can be pretty stable. Research (as reported in Science) on deep sea bacteria revealed incredibly slow metabolisms because of the extreme cold, lack of light and lack of nutrients. Based on the standard curve, the researchers estimated a reproductive period on the order of 1,000 years, as opposed to the half hour typical in a Petri dish.

    Anyone who has worked preserving meats or fish using salt and dehydration (usually by smoking) knows how to get several orders of magnitude of preservation. A geologically stable salt mine could have all sorts of ancient goodies stashed in it.

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