January 13, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Long Life in Death Valley Claimed

34,000-Year-Old Organisms Found Buried Alive!” blares a headline at Live Science.  Reporter Andrea Mustain admitted “It’s a tale that has all the trappings of a cult 1960s sci-if movie,” but assures us this one is scientific.
    Brian Schubert (U of Hawaii) dug up salt crystals in the floor of Death Valley and found bacteria at the edge of survival, doing nothing but maintaining themselves.  In five of the 900 crystals he studied, he was able to coax the microbes back to enough activity to grow and reproduce, after about two and a half months of coaxing them to wake up.  Schubert believes the presence of “fellow captives” of algae in the bubbles provided a food source for the bacteria, but the article did not explain how the algae survived that long.
    Schubert and his advisor Tim Lowenstein (Binghamton University) were surprised by the age of the microbes.  “They need to be able to repair DNA, because DNA degrades with time,” Lowenstein acknowledged.  Mustain considered these some of the oldest living organisms on the planet.  Schubert exclaimed, “It’s 34,000 years old and it has a kid.”  Mustain added, “And ironically, once that happens, the new bacteria are, of course, entirely modern.”
    Live Science’s coverage is based on this month’s cover story in GSA Today,1 a journal of the Geological Society of America.  In the abstract, the authors consider the possibility of discovering even older organisms in space, in “materials that potentially harbor microorganisms are millions and even billions of years old.”  In the conclusions, they said, “Although we are beginning to understand the community of microorganisms inside modern and ancient fluid inclusions, much more needs to be learned about how they survive.”

1.  Lowenstein, Schubert and Timofeeff, “Microbial communities in fluid inclusions and long-term survival in halite,” GSA Today Jan 2011, DOI: 10.1130/GSATG81A.1.

No one ever questions the age, even though it leads to an astonishing “tale that has all the trappings of a cult 1960s sci-if movie.”  If it has all the trappings, maybe that is exactly what it is.  The scientists had to trust dating methods that are based on many assumptions, including evolutionary time.  Evolutionary time is like deep pockets to evolutionary biologists and geologists.  They never have to provide collateral (12/22/2010) or pay up, but just indulge at will without any responsibility, and just like in the movies, nobody really gets hurt.*  So along with the sci-if, we have gamblers, con artists and dupes in the cast.  You might buy a ticket for this movie if it were advertised as fiction, but for those who buy when it is advertised as a serious scientific documentary, who is the dupe?
*except for the suckers who buy the fiction as truth.

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Categories: Cell Biology

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