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Creation 28(1):23, December 2005

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‘Sleeping Beauty’ bacteria


Once upon a time, a certain species of bacterium was happily living in a verdant forest.  But then the climate changed.  Frigid blasts of air ravaged the land, turning the lush green environment into a vast frozen wasteland—a place today we call Antarctica.

Sleeping Beauty by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, from the Briar Rose series 4, PD images/creation_mag/vol28/4741sleepingbeauty.jpg

Locked into an icy tomb, surely this was the end for these bacteria?  But no!  For the bacteria weren’t dead—just dormant, waiting for their Prince Charming to evolve and awaken them with the kiss of life.  And sure enough, eight million years later, he came in the form of scientists who took some icy blocks of soil back to their nice warm laboratory and thawed them out, coaxing the bacteria ‘back to life’.

Well … at least that’s the story as based upon the announcement by University of Otago geologist Gary Wilson that he and his colleagues1 have successfully revived ‘eight-million-year-old’ bacteria.2 

However, not all evolutionists would agree about the eight million years.  It’s not the presumed age of the frozen sedimentary layers (from which the bacteria were ‘rescued’) that they would dispute.  Rather, it’s the claim that the bacteria have been sitting dormant in those layers for that long.  Perhaps if they were only thousands of years old, then revival might be feasible.  But after millions of years, even ‘in the freezer’, the bac­teria should have long since fallen apart.3  Experts say there shouldn’t even be any DNA remaining after 100,000 years, let alone the entire intact machinery which makes up a living organism.4 

So the sceptics object that the samples must have somehow been contaminated with modern bacteria. 

[A]fter millions of years, even ‘in the freezer’, the bacteria should have long since fallen apart.

But that claim sounds increasingly hollow in the light of continued discoveries of ‘ancient’ DNA, and the meticulous care that researchers take to avoid contamination. 

For example, DNA from 28 different families of trees, shrubs, herbs and mosses, as well as the woolly mammoth and other extinct mammals, has been found in the frozen sediments of Siberia, ‘dated’ up to 400,000 years old.5  And under sterile laboratory operating procedures, dormant bacteria have been revived from within salt crystals said to have formed 250 million years ago!6,7

So how do we explain this apparent contradiction—that biological mol­­­e­­­cules like DNA are much too fragile to remain intact beyond some thousands of years, yet entire cells (complete with DNA) have been revived after millions of years—if no contamination from/by living organisms has occurred? 

The problem disappears immediately if one looks at the evidence in the light of biblical history, rather than the imag­ined evolutionary (millions-of-years) history.  From the Bible, we know that none of the world’s sediments can be older than about 6,000 years, and most were probably formed during or after the global Flood about 4,500 years ago.  Given that timeframe, the revival of frozen bacteria from Antarctica is no surprise at all. 

But for those who believe in millions-of-years fairy tales …

Posted on homepage: 12 February 2007

References and notes

  1. NASA’s Imre Friedmann and David Gilichinsky from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Return to text
  2. Norris, J., Dormant primitive life forms revived, Otago Daily Times, <www.odt.co.nz/cgi-bin/getitem?date=20Feb2004&object=GIF16A9689NN&type=html>, 16 April 2004.
    Return to text
  3. Biological molecules (e.g. DNA) are immensely complex, and are quite fragile.  Even when protected from moisture, heat and other forms of energy such as radiation, they eventually disintegrate.  This is from the random effects of molecular motion and background radiation, consistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics Return to text
  4. In fact, studies of the rate of breakdown of DNA in laboratory conditions indicate that ‘no DNA would remain intact much beyond 10,000 years.’  Sykes, B., The past comes alive, Nature 352(6334):381–382, 1991. Return to text
  5. Willerslev, E. and Hansen, A.J. et al., Diverse plant and animal genetic records from Holocene and Pleistocene sediments, Science 300(5620):791–795, 2003. Return to text
  6. Vreeland, R.H., Rosenzweig, W.D., Powers, D.W., Isolation of a 250 million-year-old halotolerant bacterium from a primary salt crystal, Nature 407(6806):897–900, 2000. Return to text
  7. Salty saga, Creation 23(4):15, 2001. Return to text.