From lemons to ham, salt is a handy food preservative. But researchers who studied very old salt crystals found that they preserved something else – evidence of life.
“There are little cubes of the original liquid that this salt grew from. And the surprise for us is that we also saw shapes that match what we expect from microorganisms,” said Kathy Benison. , a geologist at the University of West Virginia. “And they could still survive in this 830 million year old preserved microhabitat.”
The salt crystals (aka halite) that Benison and his team studied were originally found in central Australia. Benison was part of the team that published these findings in the journal Geology.
This video of a different salt crystal shows what the liquid looks like as it moves through it.
Although the idea that these microorganisms could still be alive is mind-boggling, Benison said science has confirmed it.
“We know from studying life in modern extreme environments that there are organisms that can go through, like a mode of survival, almost like hibernation. They are still alive, but they slow down all of their biological activities,” a- she declared. .
Benison suspects that if there are in fact microorganisms in the crystal, they might be alive in a dormant state. The halite should be opened to confirm that it is indeed organic material and that it is still alive.
While cracking into this crystal might seem like a bold move – we’re currently battling a global pandemic caused by microscopic viruses, after all – Benison plans to do just that. But she said there was no need to worry.
“It looks like a really bad B-movie, but there’s been a lot of detailed work going on for years to try to figure out how to do it in the safest way possible,” she said.
Bonnie Baxter, a biologist at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, was not involved in the study, but still offered some comforting words.
“An environmental organism that has never seen a human will not have the mechanism to get inside us and cause disease,” she said. “So personally, from a scientific point of view, I’m not afraid of that.”
Baxter said these discoveries were not only a major step in studying the origins of life on Earth, but also opened the door to the discovery of life on other planets.
“And when we think of Mars, we’re talking about billions of years, probably, since microbial life could have thrived in the waters of this planet. And so we really need longer experiments in rocks that have been around for longer on our planet in order to understand what might be happening on Mars,” Baxter said.
And maybe, just maybe, they could bring us a little closer to finding evidence of extraterrestrials.
The radio version of this piece was reported by Sacha Pfeiffer and Alisa Chang. It was produced by Michael Levitt and edited by Sarah Handel, and adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.