Indexed on: 01 Jul '14Published on: 01 Jul '14Published in: Astrobiology
Bacteria and archaea isolated from crystals of halite 10(4) to 10(8) years old suggest long-term survival of halophilic microorganisms, but the results are controversial. Independent verification of the authenticity of reputed living prokaryotes in ancient salt is required because of the high potential for environmental and laboratory contamination. Low success rates of prokaryote cultivation from ancient halite, however, hamper direct replication experiments. In such cases, culture-independent approaches that use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and sequencing of 16S ribosomal DNA are a robust alternative. Here, we use amplification, cloning, and sequencing of 16S ribosomal DNA to investigate the authenticity of halophilic archaea cultured from subsurface halite, Death Valley, California, 22,000 to 34,000 years old. We recovered 16S ribosomal DNA sequences that are identical, or nearly so (>99%), to two strains, Natronomonas DV462A and Halorubrum DV427, which were previously isolated from the same halite interval. These results provide the best independent support to date for the long-term survival of halophilic archaea in ancient halite. PCR-based approaches are sensitive to small amounts of DNA and could allow investigation of even older halites, 10(6) to 10(8) years old, from which microbial cultures have been reported. Such studies of microbial life in ancient salt are particularly important as we search for microbial signatures in similar deposits on Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System.