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.

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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.