86-Million Old Bacteria Living In Slow Motion
Scientists have discovered a community of bacteria that have been buried in the ocean floor for 86 million years, and due to nutrient-deprivation are, in essence, living life in slow motion.
The bacteria studied were consuming the same carbon that became trapped with them in the layers of sediment around the time of the dinosaurs. In addition, they consumed oxygen at an incredibly slow rate.
"They left the surface world when the dinosaurs walked the planet-and they are still eating the same lunch box that they got back then," said Hans Røy, a geomicrobiologist at Aarhus University in Denmark and leader of the study.
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In the 1990's it was discovered that bacteria could live trapped in the ocean sediment for millions of years. How they did, however, was a mystery. Turns out a slow-motion lifestyle may be the key.
Scientists collected bacteria from ten meters beneath the seabed at 11 different locations in the North Pacific Gyre, a circular current that encompasses much of the Pacific.
The Gyre is largely nutrient-deprived because of its self-contained nature.
According to Røy, the Gyre "just turns round and round like a huge closed pot, without exchanging much water with the rest of the ocean,"
There is not much to go on in terms of the bacteria's DNA or any other key genetic clues it might hold since the bacteria are so old, they are vastly different in their composition.
At the genetic level, the deep bacteria "don't look like anyone we know, so it limits the usefulness of DNA work," says Roy.
Recent research even suggests that similar microbes may make up 90 percent of the Earth's single-celled organisms, making them important to study despite their elusive nature.
Adding to the difficulties of studying such a bacteria is that it is incredibly averse to laboratory conditions. Since they are used to such scant quantities of nutrients, they often become overfed in a lab environment, where oxygen and other essential nutrients are more abundant. Unlike normal bacteria which can reproduce to millions in hours or days, these age-old bacteria have learnt to reproduce incredibly slowly due to their limited sustenance, and trying to watch them grow in a petri dish is like "looking at a tree to see if it grows," according to Roy.