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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3 responses

  1. Peter Gorian Avatar
    Peter Gorian

    Great experiment. If you wanted to give life a chance you could seed our Galaxy’s new star forming areas with the lower forms of the building blocks of life. This would give life the head start it needs to get established quickly shaving off perhaps x billion years of evolution. It may give life a start where it may not have got going at all or a sufficient head start to evolve into intelligent life capable of avoiding planetary extinction events.

    Perhaps this has already been done and life on this planet is the byproduct of that effort. I wonder what the signatures of that would look like? This of course requires some really long term planning which is beyond the scope of most of our governments (enter Mr Musk). The other side of this is the questionable ethics associated with this approach. What if this good stuff arrives on a planet (or elsewhere) that already has some form of established life? Perhaps we have already started this process with the voyager spacecrafts. Did they really leave this planet with no traces of our biology.

    Anyway thought provoking article and again a great experiment.

  2. Finn Williams Avatar
    Finn Williams

    I think this is a great experiment. If the bacteria from space survives in earth’s conditions, does that mean that bigger, more evolved bacteria could survive as well? Including… ALIENS?

    1. David Avatar

      Hi Finn,
      Good question!

      We’re not sure, and that’s one reason scientists are investigating. But in general, the hardiest life forms tend to be simple. I guess that kinda makes sense? there’s a lot less that can go wrong when you’re just a tiny bacteria. there are lots of things that need to work to keep a human alive!

      If you’re interested in alien bacteria, you might like to read up on the Panspermia hypothesis:

      It’s only an idea, but some scientists think the entire universe could be filled with space-faring bacteria!

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