US scientists plan to crack open a salt crystal with liquid inside that may contain still-living microorganisms dating back to 830 million years ago, in research that could provide insight into life on other planets.
Salt crystals, called halite, retain liquid from when the mineral was originally formed, and scientists have observed shapes inside that appear to be microorganisms.
The researchers used imaging techniques to peer into the liquid and saw what appeared to be organic solids and liquids. The tiny objects were consistent in size, shape and fluorescent response to algae and prokaryotes, simple single-celled organisms, the researchers said.
The trapped liquids “serve as microhabitats for the trapped microorganisms, allowing for exceptional preservation of organic matter over long periods of geologic time,” the researchers wrote in a paper published earlier this month.
“They could still survive in this 830 million year old preserved microhabitat,” researcher Kathy Benison told National Public Radio.
Halite crystals form in saline surface waters and can trap these liquids inside as they grow, including solids that were in the water.
Scientists believe the organisms could still be viable in a dormant state inside the crystals, which have been discovered in central Australia.
Previous research on extreme environments has shown that some organisms can go into “hibernation” to stay alive by suspending their biological activities, said West Virginia University geologist Benison.
The researchers plan to open the crystals to confirm if there is living organic matter inside the liquid.
They said there was no risk in exposing prehistoric creatures to the modern world.
“It looks like a really bad B-movie, but there’s been a lot of detailed work going on for years trying to figure out how to do it in the safest way possible,” Benison said.
The research paper noted the miniature environment’s similarity to conditions on Mars.
The formation they study is a “possible analogue for some Martian rocks” because both contain similar minerals and other characteristics, the researchers wrote.
“The results of our study suggest the possibility of similar long-term preservation of biosignatures on Mars,” the researchers said. “Microorganisms that may have existed in surface brines on Mars in the ancient past may be trapped as microfossils in chemical sedimentary rocks.”
Living microorganisms were already extracted from halite 250 million years ago.
The scientists published a research paper on halite earlier this month in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Geology.