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Is Ancient Bacteria Still a Threat?

Microbes locked in Antarctic ice for as much as eight million years have been "resuscitated" in a laboratory. Now that the ice at both poles is melting, could this be dangerous?

Scientists melted down samples of ice from Antarctica glaciers, some of which are 8 million years old. The oldest living thing they discovered is a 600,000-year-old bacteria. Once the water was warmed up, the microbes became active again.

In LiveScience.com, Jeanna Bryner quotes researcher Thomas Gilbert as saying, "The colder you make the environment, the longer [DNA] survives. In places like Mars and [Jupiter's moon] Europa, which are really, really cold, DNA may very well be surviving there for a hell of a long time."

BBC News reports that "the findings raise the possibility that ancient bugs, long frozen in ice, will return to life as climate change causes the glaciers to melt, flushing their genetic material into the oceans. However, experts say this process has been going on for billions of years, and is unlikely to cause human disease."

What about contamination?could these actually be modern microbes that have been misidentified? BBC quotes Copenhagen researcher Eske Willerslev as warning that contamination of samples with genetic material from modern microbes is always a possibility. He says, "These results show patterns that you can't easily explain by contamination, but I would feel more comfortable with the results if they had been replicated in two independent labs."

But US researcher David Marchant says that temperatures in the areas that were excavated were so cold that any liquid melting on the surface could only have penetrated a tiny way down into the ice, and all samples were taken from below this level, so "there's really no chance for modern contamination."

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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