‘Dinosaur Age’ bacteria revived from deep sea bed
Researchers say they have revived bacteria over 100 million years old from “lifeless” muddy layers of the deep Pacific.
Lab incubators helped “coax the microbes out of their epoch-spanning slumber.”1
The findings have astounded scientists. The ocean floor in that region is renowned for having far fewer nutrients there than seabed sediments elsewhere. As one remarked, “Nowhere else on Earth do you find sediment as close to totally dead as this.”3 However, the drill core samples did contain oxygen, which these aerobic (air-breathing) bacteria need, so this was not a limiting factor.
The clay samples were taken where the sea was 5.7 km (3.5 miles) deep, some 2,300 km (1,400 miles) north-east of New Zealand. The drill cores went down as far as 75 metres (250 feet) into the seabed. The drill had to go through thick capping layers of a hard, dense rock called porcellanite,4 which is impenetrable to microbes. So when the layers were deposited—allegedly 101.5 million years ago—they trapped the bacteria beneath. And no other micro-organisms (which could serve as a nutrient source) could get in.
Biologists know that bacteria simply cannot survive in such low-nutrient conditions for that time. This explains the widespread astonishment. The study’s lead author was Dr Yuki Morono of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. He said: “I was first sceptical whether the findings are from some mistake … ”.1 Also: “It is surprising and biologically challenging that a large fraction of microbes could be revived from a very long time of burial or entrapment in extremely low nutrient/energy conditions.”5
It is “biologically challenging” because of the cell’s complex and fragile machinery. The harsh reality of living things is continual breakdown and decay. Without constant repair, the cell’s internal workings would simply ‘fall apart’.6 Experts say there shouldn’t even be any intact DNA after 100,000 years, let alone the entire intact machinery of a living organism.
No wonder the researchers themselves were skeptical. One study co-author recalled, “We didn’t know whether we had fully functioning cells or zombies capable of doing very few things.”3
In fact, the rescued bacteria responded very obviously when given adequate food, performing “diverse metabolic activities”.5 They soon multiplied, with all the hallmarks of being fully functioning. This was not some outlier group or two, either. Genetic analysis indicated they represented 10 major groups of bacteria.
The researchers admit it’s a mystery how microbes from sediment 100 million years old could revive “after laying dormant since large dinosaurs prowled the planet.”7 From what is known of the maintenance energy needs of surface-living bacteria, they simply could not have survived in this low-nutrient sub-seafloor environment for that long. Note that these were not truly ‘dormant’ bacteria, surviving as dehydrated ‘spores’ with a suspended metabolism, but slowly metabolizing. Most were not even the types that form spores, which help some bacteria endure environmental stress. But even spores will accumulate molecular damage while in their dormant state.8
So they concluded that the ocean floor microbes must have a hitherto-unknown special talent. That is, the energy needs for seabed bacteria must be “millions of times lower than that of surface microbes.”1This is despite the evident similarities between the two. Surprise morphed into admiration. Study co-author, University of Rhode Island oceanographer Steven D’Hondt mused, “Maintaining full physiological capability for 100 million years in starving isolation is an impressive feat.”5
An article in New Scientist claimed, “the deep-sea microbes must have patched and repaired themselves countless times”.3 But how could they, with insufficient available energy? Dr Morono’s mind-boggling conclusion: “We now know that there is no age limit for [organisms in the] sub-seafloor biosphere.”1
A claim too hard to challenge?
So far it seems this extraordinary claim of “no age limit” for seabed bacteria has not been seriously challenged in the scientific literature. It’s as if the research community has meekly accepted it.
This is in stark contrast to the uproar 20 years ago following the revival of bacteria trapped within salt crystals supposedly 250 million years old.9 Many were adamant that the crystal samples must have been contaminated with modern bacteria. Similar objections were raised to other reports of ‘sleeping beauty bacteria’.10 But not this time, probably because of the bacteria being sealed under layers of dense, hard, impenetrable porcellanite; plus the researchers’ meticulous efforts to prevent contamination. Referring to the ‘salt’ incident in its report on these latest findings, New Scientist wrote that contamination “is unlikely to be the case in the new study.”3
The millions-of-years fiction
So, how can bacteria survive for ‘millions of years’ under extreme energy limitation, despite real-life factors strongly suggesting that’s impossible? The crux of the problem is the presumed millions-of-years evolutionary timeline. The only thing actually observed was that the seabed bacteria are still alive. The millions of years are fictional narrative spliced to the results.
The real history
From the Bible, the maximum possible age is about 6,000 years. Most likely, the sediments that trapped the bacteria were laid down during the Flood of Noah’s day, about 4,500 years ago. We don’t doubt that the bacteria date back to when “dinosaurs prowled the planet”. Pairs of dinosaurs were taken aboard the Ark. And they came off afterwards—not millions of years ago, just thousands.
This completely changes the time-frame basis for calculating energy-usage rates of the seabed bacteria.
It is not reasonable to claim, without any measurements in support, that their energy requirements must be millions of times lower than other bacteria. While surviving for thousands of years is still an impressive feat, believing the biblical timeframe is rational. It does not need the impossible mental gymnastics and sidelining of scientific data that a hundred million years of evolutionary time demands.
In this context, the initial shocked reactions of the researchers’ own scientific peers to the findings make good sense. E.g. New Scientist reported: “Many biologists are unsettled by the idea that individual bacterial cells could survive for 100 million years.”3 And Dr D’Hondt himself recounts, “I mention this possibility in talks and it drives some researchers nuts.”3
As indeed it should.
References and notes
- Scientists successfully revive 100m-year-old microbes from the sea: Microbes had lain dormant at the bottom of the sea since the age of the dinosaurs; theguardian.com, 29 Jul 2020. Return to text.
- Morono, Y. and 7 others, Aerobic microbial life persists in oxic marine sediment as old as 101.5 million years, Nature Communications 11:3626, 2020. Return to text.
- Barras, C., Bacteria dug up from beneath the seabed may be 100 million years old; newscientist.com, 28 Jul 2020. Return to text.
- Porcellanite is so named because it looks like unglazed porcelain. It is often impure chert, a rock comprising microscopic crystals of quartz (silicon dioxide, SiO2). Return to text.
- Scientists discover 100-million-year-old bacteria under South Pacific seafloor; abc.net.au, 29 Jul 2020. Return to text.
- See Batten, D., DNA repair mechanisms ‘shout’ creation, Creation 38(2):56, 2016. Return to text.
- Deep sea microbes dormant for 100 million years are hungry and ready to multiply; sciencedaily.com, 28 Jul 2020. Return to text.
- Djouiai, B. and others, Role of DNA repair and protective components in Bacillus subtilis spore resistance to inactivation by 400-nm-wavelength blue light, Appl Environ Microb, 84(19): e01604-18, Sep 2018. Return to text.
- Vreeland, R.H., and 2 others, Isolation of a 250-million-year-old halotolerant bacterium from a primary salt crystal, Nature 407(6806):897–900, 2000; and Salty saga, Creation 23(4):15, 2001. Return to text.
- See, e.g.; ‘Sleeping Beauty’ bacteria and More ‘Sleeping Beauty’ bacteria. Return to text.