Bacteria can be resurrected in a variety of environments, including ice and 100 million-year-old seafloor sediment. We even know they can live on Mars.
A new study has revealed that they can live without food. Jay T. Lennon, an Indiana University professor, led the study, which saw about 100 populations of different bacteria in closed systems denied food for 1,000 days.
The team observed how long they could survive while starving and discovered that the majority of them survived.
“The larger question of how bacteria survive long periods of energy limitation is relevant to understanding chronic infections in humans and other hosts, and is related to how some pathogens tolerate drugs like antibiotics,” said Lennon, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology.
Bacterial infections are notoriously difficult to treat, in part because bacteria can frequently enter a quiescent or dormant state (an energy-limited state) that renders them less sensitive to drug treatments. They may also develop antibiotic resistance in this state.
Lennon and his colleagues, including former Indiana University doctoral student William Shoemaker, discovered that energy-limited bacteria can have lifespans of up to 100,000 years in the study.
“Clearly, these forecasts go far beyond what can be measured,” Lennon added. However, the researcher did state that the ages correspond to the ages of viable bacteria recovered and resurrected from ancient materials such as amber, halite crystals, permafrost, and sediments at the bottom of the deepest oceans.
Lennon and Shoemaker believe bacteria have a variety of energy-saving mechanisms, such as dormancy. Some bacteria may even “scavenge” the bodies of their dead relatives in order to survive.
What does all of this mean for humans? It means that bacterial infections are more dangerous than ever, and with climate change reviving some of these ancient bacteria, we may soon have something to worry about.