A 34,000 year old bacteria has come back from the dead and is breeding

Thirty-four millennia ago, some bacteria got trapped inside salt crystals in what is now Death Valley. These crystals were recently dug up and the bacteria freed from their hibernation...and then they started reproducing.

Salt crystals can grow incredibly quickly and are known to trap whatever tiny organisms don't get out of the way. For most microscopic critters, entrapment would mean a swift death inside the crystal. But this particular type of bacteria managed to shut down their entire bodies and wait out their imprisonment, subsisting off of little algae cells called Dunaliella. Researcher Brian Schubert, who made the discovery, explains what was going on inside the crystals:

"They're alive, but they're not using any energy to swim around, they're not reproducing. They're not doing anything at all except maintaining themselves. The most exciting part to me was when we were able to identify the Dunaliella cells in there, because there were hints that could be a food source."

These aren't the oldest organisms to survive in suspended animation - there have even been disputed claims of reviving bacteria from 250 million years ago - but these bacteria are special in how quickly they returned to their old, salt-free way of life. Once they were freed from the crystal, the bacteria spent about two and a half months recuperating in their "survival" state, but they then started returning to normal.

A few of the bacteria actually managed to reproduce. It wasn't many - only five of the 900 bacteria produced offspring - but microbes like this are choosy about where they'll reproduce even under normal circumstances, so some of the ancient bacteria might just not have liked their new environment. After 34,000 years in stasis, I suppose they've earned the right to be cranky, or whatever the bacterial equivalent of this is. Either way, this new generation of bacteria is separated from their long-dead bacterial "grandparents" by thirty-four millennia. Talk about your generation gaps...

[via OurAmazingPlanet; image of the salt crystals by Brian Schubert - the ancient bacteria are the tiny dark points in the culture]