Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Geek Files

Okay, I think most everyone would agree: It'd be hard to get geekier than this.
A small purple microbe that spent more than 120,000 years in hibernation deep beneath a Greenland ice sheet is alive again. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University revived the bug in a lab by warming it in an incubator over the course of 11 months, Scientific American reported.

The bacterium, which was found under nearly two miles of ice, began producing fresh colonies when it was reawakened.
How cool is that? And does anyone else remember that one of the underlying premises of The X-Files' running "alien invasion" theme involved an alien bacteria (or virus, I forget which) that thawed out after umpteen thousand years frozen in ice?

But there's another reason for interest beyond simply pinning the cool-meter, which is that such extremely cold Earth environments are thought to be our best available analogues to alien environments. Thus, Scientific American reported,
[s]pace scientists are excited by the find because it suggests alien creatures might be resurrected on other frozen worlds - especially the Red Planet.

NASA revealed in January that plumes of methane on Mars could be from living organisms. Some scientists believe that any microbes are lying dormant beneath thick underground ice on the Red Planet. A future space mission could dig them up and bring them back to life.

A European orbiting spacecraft, Mars Express, has identified other regions that may have sheltered primitive forms of alien life.
Other microbes and nucleic acids have been found intact in ice 750,000 years old and permafrost up to several million years old. But they were thoroughly dead. The oldest frozen bugs previously revived were 30,000 years old. These are thus four times older.

Although the possibility that was raised a few years ago of very recent - like within the past decade - water flow on the surface of Mars has been brought into serious question, the possible existence of underground liquid water sources has been strengthened by the recent determination that under Martian conditions, it could be possible to have liquid water even if the planet's surface temperature was well below freezing. The more likely liquid water is, the more likely the development of some sort of life is; and the more recently that water might have been liquid, the younger any remaining bugs frozen in ice would have to be, and so the greater the chance of reviving them.

The newly-discovered Earth bug has been named Herminiimonas glaciei, or H. glaciei. It
belongs to a rare family of 'ultramicro' bacteria that live in extreme environments.

It is tiny even for bacteria, being 10 to 50 times smaller than the food bug Escherichia coli (E. coli). ...

Dr. Jennifer Loveland-Curtze, who led the US team at Pennsylvania State University ... stressed that H. glaciei was not harmful to humans - which was just as well since it can pass straight through safety filters commonly used in laboratories and hospitals.
So I guess Mulder and Scully can stay retired.

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