830-Million-Year-Old Microorganisms May Help in the Search for Life on Mars
830-million-year-old organisms have been identified within an ancient salt crystal. Not only might these tiny life forms be reanimated, but the technologies being used to analyze them will help in the search for “ancient aliens.”
The single-celled microorganisms lived almost 1 billion years ago in a shallow salty lake or sea. The team of scientists identified the ancient life forms in pockets of fluid trapped within halite (rock salt) crystals gathered in southwestern Australia. The next step is to determine if these cells are alive, then, to reanimate them.
Fluid inclusions in halite with microorganisms. ( Sara Schreder-Gomes )
Smashing Old World Paradigms with Delicate Tech
Study co-author Sara Schreder-Gomes conducted this research project while working at the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University. The professor told Live Science that this is not the first time microorganisms have been found in ancient salt crystals. However, until now, the oldest samples known to science dated back to the Permian period, around 250 million years ago. These new samples are around 830 million years old.
The new halite samples were obtained from Australia's Browne formation . Traditionally, such crystals were analyzed destructively, with the crystals being smashed to reveal their contents. This method has always been problematic because different aged materials around the samples are mixed together and confuse results. However, in this new research project the cells were carefully extracted from their saline tombs with microscopic syringes.
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Australia Really is Treasure Island
4.4 billion years ago, in earth's formative years, billions of tons of minerals were trapped within the ancient geology of what is today Western Australia. Incalculable tons of gold, iron, nickel, heavy mineral sands, diamonds, and bauxite are all found in Australia in abundance, along with subterranean oceans of liquid gold - petroleum.
Located within the geological area known as the Officer basin, the Browne formation is several kilometers deep and comprised of compressed shale and mudstone. Therefore, geologists have calculated that billions of years ago this area was an intertidal to lagoonal environment. The team of researchers bored deep into the salt-rich Browne formation and took a series of “1 millimetre (0.04 inch) thin halite samples” at between 1,481 meters (4,858 feet) to 1,520 meters (4,987 feet) deep.
Exploring 830-Million-Year-Old Micro-Caverns
The ancient microorganisms measure from half a micron to 5 microns in diameter. For your reference, one micron is a mere 1/1000 mm (1/25,000 of an inch), and the human eye sees dust particles that are approximately 25 microns in size. Therefore, the researchers used 2000x magnifying glasses to peer into the 830-million-year-old pockets within the salt crystals.
The scientists explored inside the timeworn micro-caverns and found organic solids and liquids that were “consistent in size, shape and fluorescent response to algae and prokaryotes, simple single-celled organisms.” The halite was then analyzed with both visible and ultraviolet light, allowing the researchers to identify and categorize “eukaryotes (algae and fungi with distinct cell nuclei) and prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea with no nuclei).”
Microorganisms in individual primary fluid inclusions in Browne Formation (central Australia)
halite from the Empress 1A core. (Schreder-Gomes, Benison & Bernau/ Geology 2022 )
What Could Go Wrong?
The earliest microbes (microscopic organisms) on earth, that scientists know about, are found in rocks dating to about 4 billion years old. These cells all hold a type of carbon molecule that is produced by all living things today. Schreder-Gomes said microorganisms can live dormant in salt and the plan is to crack open the crystal to find out whether the 830-million-year-old life forms are still alive, or not.
Study author Kathy Benison, a geologist at West Virginia University, told NPR that bringing ancient life into the modern world “might not sound like the most sensible idea.” However, the researcher said such experiments will be carried out with “the utmost caution” as work has been going on for many years “figuring out how to do it in the safest possible way.”
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New Cell Technologies in the Search for ‘Ancient Aliens’
A report in Daily Mail says Australia's Browne formation rocks formed in a similar environment to ancient Mars, and that the Perseverance Mars rover is collecting rocks that will one day be brought back to Earth.
The new non-destructive techniques of analysis that have been developed to delve into the 830-million-year-old salt crystal, therefore, might help in the “search for ancient aliens” said Dr. Schreder-Gomes. However, these aliens probably won’t be of the grey or reptilian variety, but more likely, “long-gone microorganisms from the Red Planet,” concluded Schreder-Gomes.
Top Image: Scientists want to reanimate 830-million-year-old microorganisms. Source: Paulista / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie