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Scientists Want To Open 830-Million-Year-Old Crystal With Potential Life Inside


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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Microscopic life?

Is anybody there? Fluid inclusions in a sample of halite, potentially containing ancient microorganisms. Image credit: Sara Schreder-Gomes.

Scientists recently announced the tantalizing discovery of ancient prokaryotic and algal cells – which may potentially still be alive – inside an 830-million-year-old rock salt crystal. Now, the researchers have spoken a little bit more about their recent study and suggested they have plans to crack open the crystal in the hope of revealing whether this ancient life is truly still alive.

Initially reported in the journal Geology earlier this month, the team used a selection of imaging techniques to discover well-preserved organic solids locked within fluid inclusions embedded in an 830-million-year-old piece of rock salt, also known as halite. They argue that these objects bear an uncanny resemblance to cells of prokaryotes and algae.


Crystalized rock salt is not capable of sustaining ancient life by itself, so the potential microorganisms are not simply locked within the crystals, like an ant trapped in amber. As rock salt crystals form through the evaporation of salty seawater, they can trap small amounts of water and microscopic organisms in primary fluid inclusions.

A video of this incredible crystal can be seen below. Notice how a bubble can be seen within the crystal as the researcher gently moves it around – it's within this small fluid-filled cavity they found the potential hints of life. 

Since previous work has indicated that microscopic life can perhaps survive in a dormant state within the fluid inclusions of salt crystals for hundreds of millions of year, the team are keen to find out whether these tiny cells might still be alive.

Speaking to NPR, study author Kathy Benison, a geologist from the West Virginia University, said they aim to open up the crystal to confirm whether these organic objects truly are still alive or whether they have perished. 


"There are little cubes of the original liquid from which that salt grew. And the surprise for us is that we also saw shapes that are consistent with what we would expect from microorganisms. And they could be still surviving within that 830-million-year-old preserved microhabitat," Benison told NPR. 

While bringing 830-million-year-old life forms back into the modern world might not sound like the most apocalypse-proof plan, she’s confident it will be carried out with the utmost caution.

"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 added.

Other scientists agreed with Benison that, if carried out cautiously and correctly, the feat should not be a concern. After all, an organism that is hundreds of years of millions of years older than humans is unlikely to be well-adapted to infect us or bring harm. 


"An environmental organism that has never seen a human is not going to have the mechanism to get inside of us and cause disease. So I personally, from a science perspective, have no fear of that," commented Bonnie Baxter, a biologist at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, who was not involved in the study.


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