Microbe may prove life can go on for ever

Immortality could be for real, say scientists who have discovered a microbe that has lived for 250 million years and shows every sign of being able to continue living for the same length of time.

Immortality could be for real, say scientists who have discovered a microbe that has lived for 250 million years and shows every sign of being able to continue living for the same length of time.

The bacterium was found locked inside a salt crystal that had been buried underground since the time when flying reptiles soared in the sky and the first dinosaurs stalked the land.

Scientists led by Russell Vreeland of the West Chester University in Pennsylvania believe the bacterium is easily the oldest living creature. It is many times older than a microbe found living in the gut of a bee, which was trapped in amber about 30 million years ago.

Spores of the bacterium appear to have survived in a state of suspended animation in one of the driest environments on Earth - an underground salt cavern in New Mexico - and the discovery raises the possibility that primitive life-forms might, after all, be able to cross the vast distances of space stowed away within the rocks of asteroids and comets, as suggested by the great British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle.

John Parkes, a microbiologist at Bristol University, says in the current issue of the journal Nature that the discovery is the best evidence so far that living microbes can survive in extreme environments. Dr Parkes said: "If bacteria can survive for this length of time, why should they die at all? The potential implications are profound. For instance, can spores effectively be immortal?"

The bacterium was extracted from a tiny pocket of liquid trapped inside the salt crystal, which was found in the wall of a ventilation shaft serving the salt cavern. A genetic analysis revealed that the microbe - designated by the numbers 2-9-3 - is closely related to a bacterium that lives in the briny environment of the Dead Sea.

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