BINGHAMTON, NY Binghamton University researchers recently revived ancient bacteria trapped for thousands of years in water droplets embedded in salt crystals.
For decades, geologists have looked at these water droplets called fluid inclusions and wondered whether microbes could be extracted from them. Fluid inclusions have been found inside salt crystals ranging in age from thousands to hundreds of millions years old.
But there has always been a question about whether the organisms cultured from salt crystals are genuinely ancient material or whether they are modern-day contaminants, said Tim Lowenstein, professor of geological sciences and environmental studies at Binghamton.
Lowenstein and Binghamton colleague J. Koji Lum, professor of anthropology and of biological sciences, believe they have resolved this doubt. And they've received $400,000 from the National Science Foundation to support further research on the topic.
Lowenstein's team, which has been pursuing this problem for years, began by examining the fluid inclusions under a microscope. "Not only did we find bacteria, we found several types of algae as well," he said. "The algae actually may be the food on which the bacteria survive for tens of thousands of years."
When Lum got involved, the researchers began to wonder about the DNA of the organisms they were finding.
"You have a little trapped ecosystem," Lum said. "Some of these guys are feeding on other ones trapped in this space. The things that aren't alive in there, their DNA is still preserved."
Lum's graduate student Krithivas Sankaranarayanan reviewed existing literature on ancient DNA and helped to develop a protocol for use with Lowenstein's samples.
"We have these samples going back from the present to over 100,000 years in one exact location," Lum said. "So Tim can look at the salinity and reconstruct ancient climates. Now we're looking at the DNA from bacteria, the
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