Frozen Bacteria Repair Own DNA for Millennia

August 27, 2007

Bacteria can survive in deep freeze for hundreds of thousands of years by staying just alive enough to keep their DNA in good repair, a new study says.

In earlier work, researchers had found ancient bacteria in permafrost and in deep ice cores from Antarctica.

These bacteria, despite being trapped for millennia, were able to be revived and grown in the lab.

Some researchers had thought that bacteria would have to turn into dormant spores to survive for so long.

But if bacteria merely went dormant, metabolism would stop and various environmental factors would begin damaging their DNA.

Like an ancient scroll that's crumbling apart, the DNA becomes so damaged that it's indecipherable after about a hundred thousand years. Then the cells can't ever reproduce and the bacteria are effectively dead.

"Our results show that the best way to survive for a long time is to keep up metabolic activity," said Eske Willerslev, lead study author and a researcher at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Doing this "allows for continuous DNA repair," Willerslev added.

The work suggests that if bacterial life existed on Mars or on Jupiter's moon Europa, it might still survive locked in icy soils.

The new study appears this week in the online advance edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Living, Just Barely

The new study examined DNA from bacteria found in permafrost from Siberia in Russia and Canada. The permafrost dated back to about a half-million years ago.

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