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830-Million-Year-Old Organisms Trapped in Crystal Could Still be Alive, Say Experts

An image of the 830 million-year-old trapped organisms. Image Credit: (Schreder-Gomes et al., Geology.

Despite having been trapped within crystals for over 800 million years, these organisms could still be alive, researchers reveal.

Halite crystals which were found dating back to 830 million years ago have revealed a surprising discovery to experts. Researchers analyzing the tiny fragments were surprised when they found small remnants of prokaryotic algae life within them. Halite is sodium chloride — rock salt — and the discovery indicates this naturally occurring mineral could be an untapped resource for studying ancient saltwater environments and ancient lifeforms.

What is fascinating is that, according to researchers, the miniature organisms trapped inside may still be alive, despite having been trapped within crystals for over 800 million years.

The discovery is a big deal to experts. Not only is this a huge implication in the search for ancient life forms here on Earth, but such a discovery opens new doors for scientists looking for life on planets and moons in the solar system.

Take Mars, for example. It is known that the red planet has massive salt deposits on its surface and giant liquid water reservoirs.

Strange life

Over 800 million years ago, life was very different. Therefore, what experts have found embedded in halite crystals is alien to anything we’ve been accustomed to seeing.

Experts discovered ancient microfossils embedded into rock formations dating back billions of years in previous research.

However, this discovery is different since salt is not able to conserve organic material like some rock formations.

Saltwater crystals can trap a small amount of fluid when forming. This trapped water is what experts call a fluid incision. It is a small amount of source water from which the halite eventually becomes a crystal.

This sole fact makes them highly valuable scientific material since the water embedded within can tell us lots of data about the temperature and chemistry of the water and teach us about the atmospheric conditions present when the mineral was formed.

In previous studies, researchers documented discovering life trapped in fluid inclusions in materials such as gypsum and halite, but mostly dating back to modern or recent times, and no more than a few dating back to ancient times noting as old as the most recent find.

The discovery

Researchers analyzed core samples of the Neoproterozoic Browne Formation from the Empress 1A core from Australia to make the discovery. In total, for this study, the researchers used ten halite beds from core depths ranging between 1480.7 meters and 1520.1 meters. In addition, the Geological Survey of Western Australia extracted the core sample used by experts in 1997.

The research, led by geologist Sarah Schreder-Gomes, used non-invasive optical methods to investigate unaltered Neoproterozoic halite. Since the halite remained intact, any particles inside must have been trapped during crystallization. This means that experts did not have to worry about contaminating the samples.

At low magnification, they identified halite crystals, then studied fluid inclusions in the crystal with transmitted-light and ultraviolet petrography.

The size, shape, and ultraviolet fluorescence of the samples indicated that they were composed of organic solids and liquids that were consistent with prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.

Fluorescence ranges were also interesting. For example, several of the samples tested by the researchers showed colors associated with organic decay. In contrast, the researchers asserted that others showed the same fluorescence as modern organisms, indicating that the samples contained intact organic material.

The researchers noted that there may even be some organisms that are still alive in some of the samples. For example, small colonies could thrive inside the fluid inclusions. Furthermore, living prokaryotes have been extracted from halite dating back 250 million years ago. Extracting tiny organisms that were trapped over 800 million years ago should therefore not be a problem.



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