Most microbial researchers grow their microbes in petri-dishes to study how they grow and how they respond to damaging conditions. But researchers in Louisiana State University’s Department of Biological Sciences are doing something almost unheard of: studying microbes under freezing conditions to understand how organisms could survive for hundreds of thousands of years in deep Antarctic permafrost, or perhaps even buried in ice on Mars.
“I could take you down the hallway into a common room we have, full of freezers,” said Brent Christner, an associate professor in LSU’s Department of Biological Sciences and Antarctic microbe explorer extraordinaire, leaning excitedly over his desk as he shows me microscope images of cells encased in ice. “And in those freezers are cells and tissues. We put them there, because that is actually a way to preserve them.”
Christner’s lab keeps thousands of different strains of microbes stored at -80 degrees Celsius. These microbes, he explains, are actually quite happily revived if taken out of the freezer and placed in nutrient-rich media. “But what if those freezers could run for a million years?” Christner asked. “We’d actually expect a fraction of them to die off every year, because they are made up of molecules that, even if frozen, are subject to decay.”