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'World's oldest living life form' brought to life

October 18, 2000
Web posted at: 3:49 PM EDT (1949 GMT)

WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Biologists have successfully revived a bacterium after it apparently remained dormant for 250 million years encased in a salt crystal, according to a report released Wednesday.

If confirmed, the ancient bacteria would earned the title of oldest living life form ever found. The previous record-holder was a bacterium living inside a bee that had been encased in amber for 25 million to 40 million years.

Russell Vreeland of West Chester University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues cultured the spore-forming bacteria, which they found in a salt crystal taken from an underground salt bed near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The crystal was harvested almost 2,000 feet underground from a shaft that is part of the U.S. Energy Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Project, a facility designed to entomb nuclear waste.

Researchers have known for some time that bacterial spores can live for long periods of time in a so-called "cryptobiotic" state, meaning the hardy spores remain alive, but do not feed or reproduce.

Vreeland said he went to great lengths to ensure that modern bacteria did not contaminate the salt crystals. He only examined undamaged crystals from an area of the salt bed accurately dated at 250 million years old.

The microbiologist also said that his team used sterile laboratory techniques to prevent accidental contamination of the crystals.

Genetic analysis of the ancient bacteria identifies it as a previously unknown relative of a common microbe called Bacillus, in particular a salt-loving variety found in the Dead Sea.

The research is published in the October 19 edition of the journal Nature.

In an accompanying article, scientist R. John Parkes said that conclusive proof of the microbe's age must await repetition of the results by another lab. But the claim does force one to pause before flavoring a meal.

"The next time you sprinkle salt on your food, think what else you might be eating," he said.



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