Once again the science world has caused a big media frenzy over little bacteria, similar to what happened in 1996 with “ALH84001,” the Antarctic rock supposedly from Mars. Then, wild hypotheses about life evolving on Mars, and other speculations about alien life abounded.
In the years since the outbreak of Mars rock fever, enough arguments—scientific and other—have been levied against the original claims that no one even considers the story that was to be the undoing of creationists worthy of attention any longer.
Now we have the claim, published in Nature magazine this week, that a “250 million-year-old” bacterium, trapped in a salt crystal, has been revived in a laboratory at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. And once again the media are making it sound as if this is “one small step for a scientist, but a giant leap for mankind.” Now (supposedly) we can trace the “evolutionary development” of the genetic makeup of this bacterium. Now we have proof that DNA can survive for enormous periods of time given the right conditions. Now we have further evidence that “extremophiles” (organisms that can survive in very harsh environments) may be inhabiting other planets, and likely colonized our own, eventually evolving into humans. One source even titled its news clip about the bacterium, “Spores provide intimations of immortality”.1
However, a realistic closer look at this finding is enlightening. Calculations based on laboratory observation of DNA suggest that even nonliving DNA would be totally degraded after ten thousand years at the most, even under extremely favorable conditions. There is a relentless tendency for all things to “fall apart” with time, and to suggest that not only DNA, but the complex machinery of an entire living organism has remained intact for even a million years, let alone a quarter of a billion, stretches credulity.
Therefore many evolutionary scientists themselves are very skeptical that the bacterium originated in the salt crystal when it was formed, thinking rather that it must be a contaminant. However, much care was taken to exclude the possibility of contamination.
The “dating” of the bacterium was based, as usual, on the assumed evolutionary “age” of that within which it was found. So if this bacterium really is as old as the substance and the layer in which it was found, and is not a younger contaminant, then rather than proving that the bacterium is millions of years old, the opposite is true: the “250 million year age” for the substances which enclose it collapses into an age of a few thousand at the most. This conclusion is based on standard experimental evidence of the degradation of complex biological molecules.
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