The mystery of the 'zombie bacteria': how some manage to resurrect after years dead

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  • A study reveals the biological mechanism that allows some organisms to return to life after tens of thousands of years

The mystery of the 'zombie bacteria': how some manage to resurrect after years dead

There are bacteria that when faced with a situation of great stress they decide to stop their vital processesand enter a deep torpor that, in many ways, resembles death. These cells can remain 'dead' for tens of thousands (perhaps millions) of years, while enduring extreme conditions such as extreme heat, powerful chemicals, or even the harsh conditions of outer space. Even so, when the time comes, these organisms manage to restart their metabolism and resuscitate in a matter of minutes. But how do they get it?

The mystery of the 'zombie bacteria', which manage to 'resurrect' even after years apparently dead, has been intriguing experts for years. The great unknown is whether these bacteria are capable of monitoring their environment while they sleep to know exactly when it is worth waking up againor if, on the contrary, they are resurrected by chance. A study published this Thursday in the journal 'Science', led by researchers from Pompeu Fabra University and the University of California at San Diego, has managed to decipher this enigmatic phenomenon. p>

The formula to revive

According to an experiment with spores of 'Bacillus sutilis', the bacteria, even when submerged in this state of deep torpor, they are able to monitor environmental cuesand assess when the conditions to return to life are met. A particularly curious dynamic, revealed by this study, is that the spores are capable of tracing a kind of chronology to add these signals, no matter how small, in order to ; know when an optimal threshold is reached to resume their metabolic and physiological activity.

The exact mechanism used by cells < /strong>to know when to resurrect is next. The spores intermittently emit potassium ions to assess their environment. If they detect a favorable signal, no matter how short, the spores release part of the potassium to the medium. so By doing so, they manage to keep track of how many favorable environmental signalsreceive consecutively. This dynamic allows them to know if the environmental conditions have definitely improved or if, on the contrary, it is only a transitory improvement. In this way they avoid being resurrected prematurely or, what is worse, coming back to life in a still unfavorable world.

“This work changes the way we think about spores, which until now were considered inert objects”

” This strategy is surprisingly similar to that of the neurons in our brain,” explains Jordi GarcĂ­a Ojalvo , Professor of Systems Biology at Pompeu Fabra University and one of the authors of this study. “This work changes the way we think about spores, which until now were considered inert objects”, adds Gürol Süel, professor of the Department in Molecular Biology from the University of California at San Diego.

“We show that cells that are in a state of deep torpor have the ability to process information. These spores can release their electrochemical potential energy to perform a computation. on its environment without the need for metabolic activity”, comments the expert after the publication of the study in the journal 'Science'.

Diseases and extraterrestrials

Understand how the 'zombie bacteria' resurrectAccording to the researchers who have led this work, these findings can have many applications. An example is the case of disease-carrying bacteriathat they have been dormant for tens of thousands of years and that now, due to the thaw, they could be resurrected. There are already several studies that warn that the melting of the poles, permafrost and, in general, the frozen regions of the planet could release viruses and bacteria responsible for diseases hitherto unknown.

These findings on 'zombie bacteria' could also guide the search for extraterrestrial life. In this sense, as Süel explains, “if life is found on Mars or Venus, it is likely that it is in an inactive state. Now we know that a life form that appears to be completely inert may still be able to think of its next steps.” 

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