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    Ancient Salt Beds

    Dr. Jack Griffith

    The key to the search for life on other planets may go through WIPP’s ancient salt beds.
    In 2008, a team of scientists led by Jack Griffith, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, retrieved salt samples from the WIPP underground and studied them with a transmission electron microscopy lab at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. In examining fluid inclusions in the salt and solid halite crystals, scientists found abundant cellulose microfibers, estimated to be 250 million years old. Evidence of ancient DNA was also observed, but in much smaller amounts than cellulose.

    Cellulose is the tough, resilient substance known as the major structural component of plant matter. The source of the cellulose is undetermined. In addition to plant sources of cellulose, cyanobacteria (which have been present for the last 2.8 billion years of earth history) also produce cellulose. The age of the cellulose microfibers is estimated to be 253 million years old, making them the oldest native macromolecules to date to have been directly isolated, visualized and examined biochemically.

    An examination of the salt samples revealed that the cellulose was very much like modern day cellulose. Researchers noticed microfibers as small as five nanometers in diameter, as well as composite ropes and mats. Because cellulose appears to be extremely stable and highly resistant to ionizing radiation, scientists believe that the search for life on other planets may begin with looking for cellulose in salt deposits.

    Ancient Bacteria

    Scientists have also previously managed to cultivate bacteria from 250-million-year-old spores found in WIPP salt crystals − it’s all similar to the plot of the movie “Jurassic Park!

    In 2000, researchers cultivated a colony of a previously unknown species of halophillic bacillus from spores inside salt deposited at the end of the late Permian (some 220-250 million years ago).  This discovery has pushed the envelope for resurrecting living things back in time by a factor of about ten, and allows the previously unknown bacteria (Bacillus species, designated 2-9-3) to lay claim to the title of the "oldest known organism". 

    Some micro-organisms form resistant structures called spores when exposed to adverse conditions.  These spores have been found to survive for hundreds and even thousands of years under the proper conditions. 

    How did scientists “uncover” this bacteria? Intact salt crystals were carefully collected from the walls of WIPP's air intake shaft at a depth of 569 meters (1867 feet) below the surface.  The nearly pure salt crystals contained fluid inclusions. After thoroughly sterilizing the surface of the crystals, researchers drilled into and removed fluid from a tiny inclusion. The fluid was then inoculated into a growth medium under carefully controlled conditions.  The new bacteria then grew from these spores

    Drs. Russell Vreeland and William Rosenzweig of West Chester University, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Dennis Powers, a Consulting Geologist in Anthony, Texas, continue to conduct research by studying the new organism and compare it with its present-day relatives.