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Can bacteria survive 500 years in space?

By David, 14 February 2019 News

Image of a red orb sealed in a glass bottle.

These bacteria samples may not be released for 500 years! Image: © 2018 Ulrich et al. CC-BY

Imagine bacteria, clinging to a rock, floating deep in space. The rock was once blasted off its planet by a cataclysmic explosion. Hundreds of years in the future, the rock encounters a new planet, bringing these lonely bacteria with it. The question is, could the bacteria survive?

That story might seem farfetched, but we’ve got good reason to think it might have happened. We’ve found Mars rocks on Earth, and even Earth rocks on the Moon. But we’re not sure if a rocks’ bacterial buddies could survive a trip that’s hundreds of years long.

That’s why European researchers set up a bacterial longevity experiment. They’ve created hundreds of glass vials, each containing a sample of dried out bacteria in space-like conditions. Over time, they’re going to open the vials and check if the bacteria survive. The researchers have enough vials to run the experiment for 500 years. The first data was released late last year, and the final vial is expected to be opened in the year 2514.

Keeping it going

When designing such a long experiment, there are some key things to consider. Wars, building fires and natural disasters happen, so there’s a chance the experiment will be destroyed before it finishes. To protect the experiment, scientists have created a duplicate. While the main experiment can be found at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, there is a complete set of backup containers hundreds of kilometres away at the Natural History Museum in London.

Another problem is keeping information safe. Hard drives break, ink fades and paper can get mouldy or crumble to dust. Even the language we speak changes. If Shakespeare wrote the instructions to an experiment, it might be difficult to follow now. Then consider that 500 years ago, Shakespeare wasn’t even born yet! To combat changes in technology and language, scientists running the experiment are scheduled to rewrite the instructions every 25 years.

It might seem strange to set up an experiment that we can’t see through to the very end. But that time will pass whether we’re here or not. And maybe, in 500 years, scientists will finish this experiment to answer some of the questions we’re asking today.

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