The story Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton first brought to us the possibility of DNA lost for millions of years being extracted and allowing organisms who have been dead for those millions of years to once again walk the Earth. Now, scientists have discovered a way to extract bacteria cells from minerals and take them through a process that allows them to once again thrive. The fact that these cells have been encased in a closed environment means they likely have not interacted with the outside world for hundreds or even thousands of years.
The incredibly small traces of bacteria are trapped in salt crystals in liquid deposits known as fluid inclusions. Geologists have debated for years whether these tiny fluid inclusions are ancient encasements of bacteria not seen for thousands or even millions of years or if there is a more modern phenomenon that allows the fluid to move into the crystals. If this were the case, the crystals would actually house modern day bacteria which would be far less noteworthy. Thanks to research from J. Koji Lum, a professor of anthropology and biological sciences, and Tim Lowenstein, a professor of geological and environmental sciences, the old question has been not only resolved but ancient bacteria from these deposits has been rejuvenated from the old dead cells.
And now the researchers have begun building their own Jurassic Park, although one populated with bacteria and algae rather than dinosaurs. Of course the endeavor would not likely make a very fantastic film, but the research potential is incredible. As a result, the team has been awarded with a $400,000 research grant to study this new technique and attempt to reconstruct ecosystems that were in existence in mankind’s history.
Still a couple of questions immediately come to mind when we start raising ancient bacteria from the dead. If these bacteria have not been around for millions of years, there’s always the possibility that we are looking at unfamiliar strains that are not used to interacting with the bacteria we have in our environment today. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that our environment would be what would prove unready for the outbreak of this ancient bacteria. Is it possible that bringing these strains back could bring back an ancient disease? Of course alarming possibilities such as these are only a relatively slim possibility when compared to the incredibly interesting possibilities for reconstruction of ancient environments. And for every alarming bit of conjecture related to science there is also a more promising alternative. Is it possible ancient strains of bacteria such as these could be grown and used as a treatment or cure for terminal diseases?
In reality the possibilities from this germinating Jurassic Park are virtually limitless. And as we mine the Earth for ancient life we open ourselves up to new possibilities for future research. Let’s just hope the outcome is better than Crichton’s vision of horror.