August 13, 2022

We’re talking microbes, not Xenomorph’s

Scientists are ready to open an 830-million-year-old rock salt crystal, which they believe will contain ancient life.

The crystal was discovered earlier this month, and the Geological Society of America then used a selection of imaging techniques to analyse their treasure. Inside, researchers found remnants of prokaryotic and algal life that had been preserved by microscopic pockets of liquid.

Known as fluid inclusions, the minuscule pockets of liquid could serve as microhabitats for tiny communities of life. Naturally, scientists want to crack it open to see if the life inside is still active. It’s almost like they’ve never watched a Sci-Fi film.

Kathy Benison, a geologist from the West Virginia University and author of the study, told NPR how her team are proceeding with their research.

“There are little cubes of the original liquid from which that salt grew,” she explained. “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.”

Benison is not unaware of how her research sounds to everyday people but has emphasised that the experiments will be carried out safely.

“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,” she said.

Should the research continue as expected, the implications could be immense. For one, it would be proof that life can survive for millennia if preserved appropriately. Across the stars, salt deposits on planets like Mars could also point to life being hidden beneath the ground.

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Sure, it’s a little less cinematic than an alien bursting from the rock, but still, it’s pretty damn cool.

“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,” said Bonnie Baxter, a biologist at Westminster College in Salt Lake City who was not involved in the study. “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,” she said.”

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