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A team of Japanese scientists say they have brought back to life ancient microbes that had been in a dormant state for more than 100million years. The tiny organisms had managed to survive in the South Pacific seabed, in sediment that is poor in nutrients but has enough oxygen to allow them to live. Among the Earth’s simplest organisms, microbes can live in extreme environments where more developed forms of life would perish.
In order to collect the microbes, the team dug 250 feet down into the sediment.
This was before drills were dropped 19,000 feet deep some 1,400 miles northeast of New Zealand.
After incubation by the scientists, the microbes began to eat and multiply.
Published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, the research was led by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.
Lead author Yuki Morono told AFP: “When I found them, I was first sceptical whether the findings are from some mistake or a failure in the experiment.
“We now know that there is no age limit for (organisms in the) subseafloor biosphere”.
Professor and study co-author Steven D’Hondt, from the University of Rhode Island, said the microbes came from the oldest samples taken from the seabed.
He explained: “In the oldest sediment we’ve drilled, with the least amount of food, there are still living organisms, and they can wake up, grow and multiply.
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“It’s the least-explored large biome on Earth, because it covers 70 percent of Earth’s surface.
“We know so little about it.”
So deep and unexplored was the region that Prof D’Hondt told Wired when trawling through the debris, a fraction of what’s pulled out is “micrometeorites” – cosmic dust landed from outer space millions of years ago.
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Mr Morono marvelled at how the microbes were able to remain alive for so long while expending virtually no energy.
He said that energy levels for seabed microbes “are million of times lower than that of surface microbes”.
Such levels would be far too low to sustain the surface microbes, and Mr Morono said it was a mystery how the seabed organisms had managed to survive.
Studies have previously revealed the intricate way in which bacteria can survive in harsh places.
Some places include undersea vents that are devoid of oxygen.
Mr Morono said the new finding shows that some of Earth’s simplest living structures “do not actually have the concept of lifespan”.
He added: “Unlike us, microbes grow their population by divisions,” explaining their lack of lifespan.
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