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Bacteria survive millennia nibbling on salad

Imagine you were trapped in a room for weeks with nothing to eat but a single leaf of lettuce. Sound like a nightmare in crash dieting?

For microscopic bacteria holed up in ancient buried salt flats in California's Death Valley, that's life. In fact, according to a new study, the fasting bugs have been subsisting on just a few cells of algae for at least the past 34,000 years.

These aren't the oldest beings with an extremely small appetite. In fact, scientists claim to have discovered living bacteria huddled in salt deposits that date back 250 million years.

Such findings are controversial, not least because it's very easy to contaminate ancient samples with modern organisms. Scientists have also puzzled over just how anything could live that long. Do they go dormant? What, if anything, do they eat?

With their new work, Brian Schubert and a team of researchers from Binghamton University in New York have solved the mystery. Ancient Archaea microbes were found living in a state of near starvation, locked inside tiny saltwater-filled bubbles in Death Valley salt crystals. The bacteria had shrunk to mere pinpricks, just a micron (about 1/25,000 of an inch) or so across. But looming next to them like comparative giants were cells of the salt-loving algae Dunaliella.

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