Monday, 13 August 2007

The Ancient Ones Return

Reading through the BBC I found two articles that interested me.

The first was the discovery of an ancient forest in Hungary.

The trees, identified as a species of Swamp Cypress have been buried for about 8 million years, and protected by a layer of sand which kept the 16 specimens safe while the rest of the forest was buried.

Now there is something of a frantic rush to save these trees, because they are now unprotected and at the mercy of the elements, but I personally feel confident that they will be safe. However the productivity of the mine will collapse because they have found that they can't move the trees failed.

Really they are just tree trunks, about 6m high and 2-3m wide.

However the insight that they can bring. They can give a good idea as to the climate of the region for around 300 years, 8 million years ago.

And the next item that I have found takes us to a lab.

Scientists have managed to 'restart' some ancient microbes

Well, maybe 'restart' is not the right word, perhaps 'reawaken', but anyway the story.

This happened about a week ago though but it is still interesting.

What they have managed to do is revive various strains of bacteria that lived from around 100 000 years to 8 million years (I wonder if they knew the trees? Probably not because they are in Antarctica...) ago.

The results are interesting.

They have found that the oldest microbes reproduced slowly compared to the younger ones (doubling about every 30-70 days instead of about a week). They suspect that they have been damaged by radiation because they have also had trouble finding out what the oldest stuff was.

They found that the DNA will degrade exponentially after 1.1 million years, so the chances of finding a microbe with a full undamaged genome is highly unlikely, but the possibility is still out there.

This is probably some decent evidence pointing away from life having arrived on Earth from something else, but we never know.

The younger microbes are very interesting though.

DNA testing found that there were examples of common bacteria among them. They found forms of protobacteria, this phylum is home to commonly known pathogens like E. Coli, or Salmonella. The firmicutes found are part of the same phylum as Staphylococcus, or, if you work in the hospitality industry, Listeria. A final example in the news article was the actinobacteria, which have modern relatives like the Micrococci, including the bacteria well loved by deodorant companies Micrococcus luteus which helps to cause the bad odour when you sweat, or another bacteria loved by other companies Propionibacterium acnes which causes, well you can guess the well known condition that usually affects people in their teens or people the day they have a hot date...


What makes these young microbes interesting is that DNA testing also found few matches, which indicates that the DNA has genes currently unknown to Science. So they may not have been isolated yet or we have not found a modern example of the genes that we don't know anything about.

What would these unknown genes do? Are they just simple ones that regulate processes or the creation of certain proteins? Or are they genes that could have a more sinister purpose? Or are they genes that could provide cures for diseases?

Now interestingly a few days before this came out NASA launched their probe to Mars (The Bad Astronomer has a pretty good picture of it on his blog) which is going to look at the ice caps of Mars, and take some samples to be analysed on Earth.

Wouldn't it be interesting if they found some cells there with DNA similar to the ones found here?

I doubt it, but they would probably find better examples of the genome of whatever appears on Mars. Perhaps any examples of life might have developed a different way of storing information?

Update: I spoke to the Bio lecturer today who had experience with things like this and he said that in regards to the trees they can probably cover them in something that would protect them.

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