After 200 Million, You Stop Counting Birthday Candles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scientists are abuzz over reports that two Pennsylvania researchers recently revived a bacterial spore believed to be 250 million years old, which means it predates the current oldest-known life forms, Strom Thurmond and Dick Clark.

In response to reader questions about the microbe, which was found in a salt crystal, we consulted with numerous experts in the field. But we had no idea what they were talking about, so we made up our own answers:

Question: Where was the spore located?

Answer: Initially, researchers claimed it had been trapped inside a grain of salt that was buried 1,850 feet below the ground in New Mexico. They have since confessed that the salt actually came from the rim of a margarita glass served at a bar in Pittsburgh.

Q: Why would someone be looking for primordial life inside a salt crystal as opposed to inside, say, airline food?

A: Let's just say it wasn't the first margarita they had that night.

Q: How did the bacterium survive so long?

A: Bacterial microbes are virtually indestructible. They have been found thriving in boiling springs and Antarctic ice. They can live without light or oxygen, in radioactive waste and toxic dumps. A few even made it through all three debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Q: Is there any way scientists can verify the spore's true age?

A: Researchers have asked the spore to produce a valid driver's license, birth certificate or baptismal record. Even an old utility bill would be acceptable, they said.

Q: After spending 250 million years in suspended animation inside a salt crystal, what does the spore think of all the changes that have taken place in the world?

A: The spore told researchers it "doesn't understand this newfangled rock 'n' roll music." It also said, "Kids today have it way too easy. Back in my time, we didn't have your fancy cars and aeroplanes. The only way to get around was by continental drift. And to attend school, we had to walk five miles through the Ice Age every day."

Q: How did the scientists revive the spore?

A: Smelling salts, of course.

Q: Please! No more salt jokes.

A: Sorry, couldn't resist.

Q: What are the implications of finding a life form so old?

A: Well, if it's eligible for Social Security, the back payments could bankrupt the U.S. government.

Q: Could the spore be harmful to humans?

A: Yes, if Hollywood decides to make a movie about it. Already, an agent is shopping around a script based on the spore's life story. Robert Downey Jr. is said to be interested in playing the lead.

Q: Is this the first time an ancient microbe has been brought back to life?

A: No. According to news accounts, scientists have also resuscitated spores from a 100-year-old can of meat, a 166-year-old bottle of ale, and from the belly of a bee that was trapped in amber about 25 million years ago. In addition, during the mid-1990s, a group of bacterial microbes served as O.J. Simpson's defense team.

Q: Where is the spore now?

A: Safely stored in one of Al Gore's lockboxes.

*

Roy Rivenburg's e-mail address is roy.rivenburg@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°