From lemon to pork, salt is a handy preservative. But researchers who studied some ancient salt crystals found that they preserve something else – evidence of life.
“There are little cubes of the original liquid from which the salt grew,” said Kathy Benison, a geologist at West Virginia University. “The surprise to us is that we also saw shapes that corresponded to what we would expect from microorganisms.” “And they could survive in these preserved microorganisms that are 830 million years old.”
The salt crystals (also known as halite) that Benison and her team studied were found in central Australia. Benison was part of the team that published these findings in the journal geology.
This video of a different salt crystal shows what the liquid looks like when moving inside.
Although the idea that these microorganisms could survive is a mind-boggling idea, Bennison said science supports it.
“We know from studying life in modern extreme environments that there are organisms that are able to undergo, like, survival mode, almost like hibernation. They are still alive, but they slow down all of their biological activities,” she said. .
Benison suspects that if there were indeed microorganisms in the crystal, it might be surviving in a hibernation state. The halite must be opened to ensure that this is in fact an organic material, and that it is still alive.
While hacking that crystal might seem like a bold option—we’re currently battling a global pandemic caused by microscopic viruses, after all—Benison plans to do so. But she said there was no need to worry.
“It seems like a really bad B-grade movie,” she said, “but there’s a lot of detailed work that’s been going on for years to try and figure out how to do it in the safest way possible.”
Bonnie Baxter, a biologist at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, wasn’t involved in the study, but she still offers some reassuring words.
“An ecological organism that has never seen a human before would not have a mechanism to enter us and cause disease,” she said. “So personally, from a scientific perspective, I’m not afraid of that.”
These findings were not only a major step in studying the origins of life on Earth, Baxter said, but also opened the door to finding life on other planets.
“And when we think of Mars, we’re talking about billions of years, probably, where microbial life would have thrived in the waters on that planet. And so we really need longer experiments in rocks that have been around for a longer time on our planet in order to understand our planet,” Baxter said. What could happen on Mars?
And maybe, just maybe, they can move us one step closer to finding evidence of extraterrestrials.
The radio version of this piece was reported by Sacha Pfeiffer and Alyssa Chang. Produced by Michael Levitt and edited by Sarah Handel, and modified for web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.
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