Researchers kick-start ancient DNA

Nov 22, 2010
Binghamton University researchers recently revived ancient bacteria trapped for thousands of years in water droplets embedded in salt crystals. Credit: Dave Tuttle

Binghamton University researchers recently revived ancient bacteria trapped for thousands of years in water droplets embedded in salt crystals.

For decades, geologists have looked at these water droplets — called fluid inclusions — and wondered whether microbes could be extracted from them. Fluid inclusions have been found inside salt crystals ranging in age from thousands to hundreds of millions years old.

But there has always been a question about whether the organisms cultured from salt crystals are genuinely ancient material or whether they are modern-day contaminants, said Tim Lowenstein, professor of geological sciences and environmental studies at Binghamton.

Lowenstein and Binghamton colleague J. Koji Lum, professor of anthropology and of biological sciences, believe they have resolved this doubt. And they've received $400,000 from the National Science Foundation to support further research on the topic.

Lowenstein's team, which has been pursuing this problem for years, began by examining the fluid inclusions under a microscope. "Not only did we find bacteria, we found several types of algae as well," he said. "The algae actually may be the food on which the bacteria survive for tens of thousands of years."

When Lum got involved, the researchers began to wonder about the DNA of the organisms they were finding.

"You have a little trapped ecosystem," Lum said. "Some of these guys are feeding on other ones trapped in this space. The things that aren't alive in there, their DNA is still preserved."

Lum's graduate student Krithivas Sankaranarayanan reviewed existing literature on ancient DNA and helped to develop a protocol for use with Lowenstein's samples.

"We have these samples going back from the present to over 100,000 years in one exact location," Lum said. "So Tim can look at the salinity and reconstruct ancient climates. Now we're looking at the DNA from bacteria, the algae, the fungi and what was living in those waters and how those things changed over time. We have a view of all the different organisms that were in the lakes at the time these inclusions were formed."

Tim Lowenstein, professor of geological sciences and environmental studies at Binghamton University, recently revived ancient bacteria trapped for thousands of years in water droplets embedded in salt crystals. Credit: Jonathan Cohen

The researchers sequence the DNA and culture the bacteria they find. Then it's time to think big. Lum's most optimistic view of the project goes like this: "It's possible that we can observe organisms evolving and see how they're reacting to climate change over geologic time."

The samples Lowenstein works with are drawn from Death Valley and Saline Valley in California as well as from sites in Michigan, Kansas and Italy.

Temperatures at these locations may have reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the past, and the pockets of water trapped inside the rocks are generally very salty.

The environment may sound harsh — in fact, it's among the most extreme on Earth — but the creatures that survive there are tough.

"These are some of the hardiest beasts on the planet," Lum said. And the conditions inside these are ideally suited to preserving DNA.

"They're like time capsules," Lowenstein agreed.

Explore further: 'K-to-M' histone mutations: How repressing the repressors may drive tissue-specific cancers

Provided by Binghamton University

4.4 /5 (9 votes)

Related Stories

Tiny bubbles a storehouse of knowledge

Oct 11, 2005

Fluid inclusions – tiny bubbles of fluid or vapor trapped inside rock as it forms – are clues to the location of ores and even petroleum; and they are time capsules that contain insights on the power of volcanoes and ...

Australian lakes may hold clues to life on Mars

Jan 05, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- By the time Curiosity, the next Mars Rover, launches in 2011, scientists on Earth will know more about the potential for life on Mars because of microorganisms that live in Australian lakes.

Australia's ancient oceans: toxic and purple

Oct 06, 2005

Ancient oceans in Australia’s north were toxic seas of sulfur, supporting coloured bacteria that made the seas appear purple and unlike anything we know of in the Earth’s history, according to new ANU research.

New bacteria discovered in tar pits

May 17, 2007

U.S. environmental scientists have discovered the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles contain hundreds of new species of unusual bacteria.

Enzyme necessary for DNA synthesis can also erase DNA

Jun 08, 2009

In this week's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, Uppsala University scientists describe a new mechanism behind an important process that causes a rapid reduction of DNA in the chromosomes of bac ...

Recommended for you

New tool aids stem cell engineering for medical research

Aug 28, 2014

A Mayo Clinic researcher and his collaborators have developed an online analytic tool that will speed up and enhance the process of re-engineering cells for biomedical investigation. CellNet is a free-use Internet platform ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ThanderMAX
not rated yet Nov 23, 2010
Is it really worth reviving ?
tkjtkj
5 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2010
This is very valuable work! It is NOT about the value of the DNA to our daily lives: it is about a 'recording' of some of earth's ancient history to the present.. like a virtual 'library' into history!

Very commendable, and totally understandable that it was funded!