American scientists plan to crack open a salt crystal with liquid inside that may contain still-living microorganisms from 830 million years ago, in research that could provide insight into life on other planets.
The salt crystals, called halite, hold liquid from when the mineral originally formed, and scientists observed shapes inside that appear to be microorganisms.
The researchers used imaging techniques to peer into the liquid, and saw what appeared to be organic solids and liquids. The tiny objects were consistent in size, shape and fluorescent response to algae and prokaryotes, simple single-celled organisms, the researchers said.
The trapped liquids “serve as microhabitats for trapped microorganisms, allowing exceptional preservation of organic matter over long periods of geological time,” the researchers wrote in a paper published earlier this month.
“They could still be surviving within that 830-million-year-old preserved microhabitat,” researcher Kathy Benison told National Public Radio.
Halite crystals form in saline surface waters, and can trap those liquids inside as they grow, including solids that were in the water.
The scientists believe organisms could still be viable in a dormant state inside the crystals, which were discovered in central Australia.
Previous research on extreme environments has found that some organisms can go into “hibernation” to stay alive by suspending biological activities, said Benison, a geologist from West Virginia University.
The researchers plan to open the crystals to confirm whether there is organic, living matter inside the liquid.
They said there is no risk to exposing prehistoric creatures to the modern world.
“It does sound like a really bad B-movie, but there is a lot of detailed work that’s been going on for years to try to figure out how to do that in the safest possible way,” Benison said.
The research paper noted the similarity in the miniature environment to conditions on Mars.
The formation they are studying is a “possible analog for some martian rocks” because both contain similar minerals and other features, the researchers wrote.
“The results of our study suggest the possibility of similar long-term preservation of biosignatures on Mars,” the researchers said. “Microorganisms that may have existed in surface brines on Mars in the ancient past may be trapped as microfossils in chemical sedimentary rocks.”
Living microorganisms have already been extracted from halite from 250 million years ago.
The scientists published a research paper on the halite earlier this month in the peer-reviewed science journal Geology.