The cover story for the April issue of the journal Astrobiology, the new research also pushes back the earliest direct evidence of biological material on Earth by about 200 million years.
Cellulose is the tough, resilient substance best-known as the major structural component of plant matter. It is one of the most abundant biological materials on Earth, with plants, algae and bacteria generating an estimated 100 gigatons each year. Prehistoric forms of cellulose were made by cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae and bacteria still found in almost every conceivable habitat on land and in the oceans, which is known to have been present on Earth 2.8 billion years ago.
Jack D. Griffith, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, found cellulose microfibers in samples he took from pristine ancient salt deposits deep beneath the New Mexico high desert.
“The age of the cellulose microfibers we describe in the study is estimated to be 253 million years old. It makes these the oldest native macromolecules to date to have been directly isolated, visualized and examined biochemically,” said Griffith, who is also a virology professor at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Until now, the oldest evidence of biological material from fragments of ancient protein – found in Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur fossils – was dated at 68 million years.
According to Griffith, the most primitive life forms likely developed means of polymerizing glucose – the energy currency of all known carbon-based life forms – into cellulose as a structural molecule. “Cellulose is like the bacteria’s house, the biofilm surrounding them. Plants adopted cellulose as their structural entity, and insects changed cellulose slightly to make kitin of which their exoskeletons are formed,” he said.
Griffith’s study took him to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the world’s first underground repository licensed to safely and permanently dispose of radioactive waste left over from nuclear weapons research and production, which is located near Carlsbad, N.M.
The waste is placed more than 2,000 feet below the surface in rooms excavated from the salt deposits that were laid more than 200 million years ago. The site was chosen to hold the waste because salt is somewhat plastic and will flow to seal any cracks that develop.
The salt samples Griffith retrieved from the WIPP were studied in his transmission electron microscopy lab at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. In examining the content of fluid “inclusions”, or microscopic bubbles, in the salt and in solid halite (“rock salt”) crystals, he and his team found abundant cellulose microfibers that were “remarkably intact.”
Their examination clearly revealed the cellulose was in the form of microfibers as small as five nanometers in diameter, as well as composite ropes and mats. “The cellulose we isolated from the ancient salt deposits is very much like real, modern day cellulose: it looks like cellulose, behaves like cellulose, it’s chopped up by the same enzymes that cut modern day cellulose and it’s very intact,” Griffith said.
As to evidence of ancient DNA, Griffith said it was observed, but in much lesser amounts than cellulose.
“So in looking for evidence of life on Mars, for bacteria or higher plants that existed on Mars or other planets in the solar system, then looking for cellulose in salt deposits is probably a very good way to go. Cellulose appears to be highly stable and more resistant to ionizing radiation than DNA. And if it is relatively resistant to harsh conditions such as those found in space, it may provide the ideal ‘paper trail’ in the search for life on other planets.”
Patric Lane | EurekAlert!
Sharpening the X-ray view of the nanocosm
23.03.2018 | Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics
Drug or duplicate?
23.03.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Festkörperphysik IAF
Satellites in near-Earth orbit are at risk due to the steady increase in space debris. But their mission in the areas of telecommunications, navigation or weather forecasts is essential for society. Fraunhofer FHR therefore develops radar-based systems which allow the detection, tracking and cataloging of even the smallest particles of debris. Satellite operators who have access to our data are in a better position to plan evasive maneuvers and prevent destructive collisions. From April, 25-29 2018, Fraunhofer FHR and its partners will exhibit the complementary radar systems TIRA and GESTRA as well as the latest radar techniques for space observation across three stands at the ILA Berlin.
The "traffic situation" in space is very tense: the Earth is currently being orbited not only by countless satellites but also by a large volume of space...
An international team of researchers has discovered a new anti-cancer protein. The protein, called LHPP, prevents the uncontrolled proliferation of cancer cells in the liver. The researchers led by Prof. Michael N. Hall from the Biozentrum, University of Basel, report in “Nature” that LHPP can also serve as a biomarker for the diagnosis and prognosis of liver cancer.
The incidence of liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, is steadily increasing. In the last twenty years, the number of cases has almost doubled...
In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.
Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...
Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.
They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...
A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...
23.03.2018 | Event News
19.03.2018 | Event News
16.03.2018 | Event News
23.03.2018 | Materials Sciences
23.03.2018 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
23.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy