How long can a bacterium live?

Note: This is not a 5-second rule thing.

It’s ages. Really – an awfully long time.

But – can it manage to get to the ripe old age of 500 years?

Well, pop back in 2514 and researchers at Edinburgh University will be able to tell you. If there is still such a thing as a researcher by then. Or indeed a University in Edinburgh. Or indeed, an Edinburgh.

Who knows what the future holds? Other than our friend the Asparamancer, of course?

The experiment itself is really rather simple: at a given timepoint, take one of the hermetically sealed vials and crack it open, rehydrate the contents and plonk them onto an agar plate, incubate and see what grows.

A 10 year old could do that.

But not for 500 years. Because humans don’t live that long.

So the problem becomes not doing the experiment, but how to tell other people how to do the experiment. Paper won’t last. A fancy carved metal sheet might get nicked by some marauding invaders at some stage over the next 5 centuries: and technology?

The team left a USB stick with instructions, which Möller realizes is far from adequate, given how quickly digital technology becomes obsolete.

And if you think that is a bit over the top, please note that no-one had even heard about USB 25 years ago, because it hadn’t been invented then.

So, the idea is to keep up to date by charging a human (a good choice because if there are no humans around, then there’s really no-one interested in the results anyway) to update the instructions every 25 years to some suitable format that will last until the next update.

I’ve done experiments that have lasted a couple of years, but they don’t have the same difficulties as this one, because I fully expected (correctly, as it happens) to still be alive when I finished it. There were occasional issues with remembering time points, but Google Calendar helped out with them. Will Google Calendar be around in 25, 50 or 500 years? I doubt it.
And it’s not like the lab staff will be working on this 24/7. This is an entirely  occasional thing.

I’m not sure how often data from this experiment are going to be shared, but I’ll keep an eye out, if only to give them a nudge if I think that they’ve forgotten to do their plating that year.