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Study finds microscopic life in 830-million-year-old crystal – and it might be alive!

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

From lemons to ham, salt is a handy food preservative. But researchers studying some really old salt crystals found them preserving something else - evidence of life.

KATHY BENISON: There are little cubes of the original liquid from which that salt grew. And the surprise for us is that we also saw shapes that are consistent with what we would expect from microorganisms. And they could be still surviving within that 830-million-year-old preserved microhabitat.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That is Kathy Benison, a geologist at West Virginia University. She was part of the team that published these findings in the journal Geology. And although the idea that these microorganisms from 830 million years ago being possibly still alive is mind-boggling, Benison says science backs it up.

BENISON: We know by studying life in modern extreme environments that there are organisms that are able to undergo, like, a survival mode, almost like a hibernation. They're still alive, but they slow down all of their biological activities.

PFEIFFER: When we heard about this study, we hoped they weren't planning on cracking into that crystal. After all, we're currently battling a global pandemic caused by microscopic viruses, so maybe leave those microorganisms where we found them.

CHANG: Well, Benison does plan to open the crystal but assures us there is no need to worry.

BENISON: It does sound like a really bad B-movie, but there is a lot of detailed work that's been going on for years to try to figure out how to do that in the safest possible way.

BONNIE BAXTER: An environmental organism that has never seen a human is not going to have the mechanism to get inside of us and cause disease. So I personally, from a science perspective, have no fear of that.

PFEIFFER: That's Bonnie Baxter, a biologist at Westminster College in Salt Lake City who was not involved in the study. She says these findings aren't just a major step in studying the origins of life on Earth but also open the door to finding life on other planets.

BAXTER: And when we're thinking about Mars, we're talking about billions of years, probably, since microbial life could have been flourishing in the waters on that planet. And so we really need longer experiments in rocks that have been around longer on our planet in order to understand what could happen on Mars.

CHANG: And maybe, just maybe, they could move us another step closer to finding evidence of aliens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.