Scientist Dr. Russell Vreeland is Director of the Ancient Biomaterials Institute at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He and colleagues discovered 250 million year old bacteria still alive inside a drop of water in a salt crystal a few years ago. It is the oldest living thing on Earth. The Kansas Underground Salt Museum has an exhibit about the discovery.
Dr. Vreeland has been in Hutchinson for a few days. On Sunday night he gave a presentation for Kansas Underground Salt Museum staff and volunteers. Monday at noon he gave a patron’s only Dillon Lecture.
This field of studying ancient biomaterials is about 100 years old. Sunday night he told us the first paper about finding an organism in salt was published in 1900 about a sample from Poland. In 1960 there were three papers, one from Europe and the other two by researchers from Wichita State University, who referenced finding the organisms in a mine about an hour north – the Hutchinson mine. So, the first two organisms isolated in North America were from the Hutchinson mine. Since 1990 there have been 66 papers published, so this is a growing field.
The importance of microbes to life cannot be underestimated. On Monday he pointed out that if we all died, the microbes would experience a minor disruption, but “if microbes all died, we’d die in six months.”
Microbes are everywhere – they live in rock in Antarctica and in the Gobi desert. Monday he showed a photo of a pure acid cave in California, saying that if you put your unprotected hand in it you’d have no skin or bones left in 30 seconds. But microbes live there.
To give people a sense of the size of these organisms, Dr. Vreeland gave the example that a million of them, end to end, would make a meter, which is roughly 39 inches. He joked Sunday night, “Bacteria invented us as carriers because we get them around better.”
They are tiny, but a powerful reminder of how interconnected life is. Dr. Vreeland pointed out Sunday night that, “When you’re underground, you’re walking around in the guarantee that there will always be life on this planet.” He said Monday, “Extinctions happen, but life survives.”
Dr. Vreeland said Monday that, “Rocks are Earth’s gene bank.” It’s another reason for the Microbial Ecologists Credo – “There is no life on Earth. It is the Earth that is alive.”
During both presentations he discussed various instances of this science being used. In 2002, the leg bone of a T Rex was discovered – not a fossil – but a bone that contained soft tissue, blood cells, etc. They learned T Rex is related to chickens. In 2007 in Mexico a frog was found preserved in amber – the whole frog. In 2005 researchers mapped the entire genome of the Woolly Mammoth. He said Sunday night, “The woolly mammoth may be the first organism ever brought back from extinction.” He said its place in the ecosystem has never been replaced, so it would not be a problem ecologically.
Using the techniques of this science, researchers now know what Neanderthals looked like, and it’s not very different than how we look today. They also know they did not have black hair, but red and blonde. They spoke like us, and some even had speech impediments.
He also talked about a fossil in an Australian museum. A researcher looked into the mouth of a Devonian era fish and saw there were nerves and muscles holding the jaw in place – even after 400 million years. One of the important things about this is that it tells us we can no longer pinpoint age by degradation.
The bacterium Dr. Vreeland discovered is commonly found in the salt from that era, but he and his colleagues were the first to isolate it and prove it was still alive. He was working with a geologist, Dr. Dennis Powers, and Vreeland said Monday he felt they were guided to that spot where they selected the crystals that had the organism. He said, “This little organism taught me more about the love of God than anything else.”
In a May 2008 interview when the Hutchinson exhibit opened, Dr. Vreeland said, “The feeling we had when we saw it was not pride. It was humility. We’ve given it its opportunity and that’s all. I feel humble every time I look at it.”
He continued during that interview by saying, “I don’t care what your beliefs are, there’s no way we can look at ourselves and thump our chests looking at that. That is the oldest living thing on earth. Here’s an organism that was alive 100 million years before the dinosaurs, you’ve got to respect it.”
They have proven that the bacteria can sense when they are in danger of the water evaporating, which would kill them. So, in salt water they will flock to an area where a crystal is forming and go to the inside edge so the crystal forms around them and they are safely encased in the water droplet inside the salt crystal. He said Sunday that when people are on tours underground, and get to pick up a piece of salt as a souvenir, that they might well have something that’s alive after 270 million years.
He spoke about how the museum can instill an excitement about science in children. We now know, thanks to Robert Ballard, that children who get really excited about science at junior high age or earlier have an 80% chance to going on to a career in science. If it’s high school before a kid gets excited about science there’s only a 15% chance. He said Sunday, “we could make the next generation of Nobel prize winners.”
They know the bacteria is 250 million years old because that’s how old the salt surrounding the water droplet they’re in is. So, because they know the salt formed around the water with the organism in it, they know the organism is the same age as the salt.
The Hutchinson Salt Member is about 270 million years old. Dr. Vreeland took samples from here last year, and more on this visit, and is just now starting to research them. He and his students have found DNA in the samples and are now incubating more than 100 crystals from Hutchinson, but it takes four months for the cultures to grow so it will be awhile before we know if there are living organisms in the salt. Other preliminary findings are exciting, but Dr. Vreeland asked not to have anything more published until it is proven, and I’m certainly going to honor that request.
He said Monday that one of the things he’s excited about from the Hutchinson mine is looking at the red spots in salt crystal. He suspects the red may be a remnant of microbes. Historically there are accounts of red salt, and microbes can make the surface of water appear red. He thinks maybe the red indicates the presence of microbes, but he can’t prove it yet.
He wasn’t able to get a good sample from New Mexico to study that, but in Hutchinson he did. The salt layer in New Mexico was formed from water of the Pacific ocean, but the salt here was left when water from the Atlantic ocean evaporated. He said the samples from Hutchinson have some of the typical crystals in which they found the bacteria.
People often ask if there is any danger to people from these bacteria and there is not. As Dr. Vreeland said Sunday night, “We don’t have enough salt for them. Neither does the ocean.” Besides that, pathogens have to co-form along with the thing they harm and there were no humans around 270 million years ago. And, an organism that can harm humans is killed by salt, which is why salt is used for things like beef jerky.
Dr. Vreeland will be returning to Hutchinson for more samples at a later date.
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