830-million-year-old microorganisms found alive

Ancient microorganisms
Microorganisms in individual primary fluid inclusions in Browne Formation (central Australia) halite from the Empress 1A core, at 1520.1 m core depth. (A) Brown algal cell, viewed in plane-transmitted light. (B) Clear prokaryotic cocci (p), orange algal cell (a), and organic compound halo (oc) around air bubble; plane transmitted light. (C) Plane transmitted light (C1) and UV-vis light (C2) images of a chain of yellow algal cells, clear cocci, and an air bubble with a halo of clear organic compound that fluoresce blue. (D) Plane transmitted light (D1) and UV-vis light (D2) images of clear prokaryotes, yellow algae, suspect organic compound halo, air bubble, and clear accidental daughter crystals; organics fluoresce white and gold. Credit: Sara I. Schreder-Gomes, Kathleen C. Benison, and Jeremiah A. Bernau, 830-million-year-old microorganisms in primary fluid inclusions in halite, CC BY license.

A team of geologists from West Virginia University has discovered what are apparently living cells in halite (rock salt) estimated to be 830 Ma old and more than 1.5 km below the surface. You may read a summary by Michelle Starr in Science Alert here, or you may find the full article in Geology here.

The geologists used optical and ultraviolet fluorescence microscopy and found what they think are algal and prokaryotic cells trapped inside liquid inclusions in the halite. It is at least possible that the cells are alive, judging by the fluorescence spectra.

I checked with a biologist, who confirmed my intuition that a seed or a spore, in order to remain alive, must display at least minimal metabolism. It is therefore hard to imagine a spore lasting for so many years, and indeed the Geology paper notes that the “microorganisms may survive in fluid inclusions by metabolic changes, including starvation survival and cyst stages, and coexistence with organic compounds or dead cells that could serve as nutrient sources,” that is, that they may have been active sometimes and dormant at other times.

Years ago, we used some green branches as tomato stakes. At the end of the season, we noticed some green leaves at the top end of one or more of the stakes. “How stubborn life is!” my mother exclaimed. She did not know the half of it.

Thanks to Vivian Dullien for alerting me to the article and discussing it with me.

Cicada molting


Photograph by Dan Phelps.

Cicada – unknown species, Lexington, Kentucky, July 17, 2015. Mr. Phelps notes, "The cicada was on my back porch. It apparently crawled up a beam after digging itself out of the ground. It split its nymph skin and was in the process of letting its wings dry when I took the photo. They are beautifully colored when they first come out like this. They eventually become darker colors. This is an annual cicada, not one of the 13- or 17-year types. Don’t know which species since this one just molted. Most of the photos available for identification are for ones that are not freshly molted from the nymph stage. This photo is rotated correctly – the nymph had been crawling up the post before stopping to split its skin and emerge as an adult."

The Futility of Anti-Evolutionary Mathematics

Book Cover
Jason Rosenhouse, The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism, Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Let me thank Joe Felsenstein for mentioning my new book The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism, which is now available from Cambridge University Press. The original intention was for a book discussing mathematics and evolution more generally, with just one section devoted to anti-evolutionary nonsense. But when that section ran into the hundreds of pages with no end in sight, we decided just to make the whole book a response to the nonsense.

Mathematics has considerable propaganda value for anti-evolutionists since it can be used to confuse a lay audience into thinking that something profound has been said. It also offers the possibility of an in-principle argument. If the numbers say evolution is impossible then that is the end of the story, regardless of any circumstantial evidence drawn from paleontology, genetics, anatomy, and so on.

Jason Rosenhouse's book on mathematical anti-evolutionism is available

[Rosenhouse book cover]

Jason Rosenhouse, The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism. Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Written by a mathematician who has paid close attention to mathematical arguments against evolution, this is a beautifully written and careful refutation of those arguments. Actually, that sentence I plagiarized from the back cover of this book. But I don't have to worry about having done that, since it comes from a blurb written by me. I also gave Jason Rosenhouse comments on the manuscript.

Jason Rosenhouse is a professor of mathematics at James Madison University who also writes popularizations of his field, including a book on the mathematics of Sudoku and one on the Monty Hall Problem (you know: the one with the doors and the goats). Is he overreaching by taking on creationist and ID arguments? Hardly: he has written extensively on this, including many posts here in PT starting in its first year. For a while had his own blog called EvolutionBlog. He attended creationist and ID conferences and wrote about that experience in his 2012 book, Among the Creationists. Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line.

This is a lovely and fascinating book which covers the most widely-cited mathematical arguments against evolution, explaining them and their weaknesses lucidly for a general audience. If you are not writing a review for one of the Discovery Institute sites, you will be impressed.

Let me outline the chapters, to give you a general picture of what is covered ...