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Bacteria Hide in Salt, Create Intricate Patterns

Jul 25, 2014 02:59 PM EDT

For the first time, researchers have realized that when the bacteria Escherichia coli interacts with salt, it manipulates the mineral to build shelters and hibernate.

The discovery, described in the journal Astrobiology, may help scientists in their search for life on extremely dry environments outside of our own planet, such as Mars or Jupiter's moon Europa.

Spanish researchers introduced E. coli into a droplet of salt water that when left to dry, the bacteria began to manipulate the salt (NaCl) crystallization to create biomineralogical biosaline 3-D morphologically complex formations, where they hibernate. Afterwards, simply by rehydrating the material, bacteria are revived.

"It was a complete surprise, a fully unexpected result, when I introduced E. coli cells into salt water and I realized that the bacteria had the ability to join the salt crystallization and modulate the development and growth of the sodium chloride crystals," biologist José María Gómez said in a statement.

"Thus, in around four hours, in the drop of water that had dried, an impressive tapestry of biosaline patterns was created with complex 3D architecture," Gómez added.

Escherichia coli is one of the most studied bacteria by biologists, and yet Gómez stumbled upon this unique characteristic by accident when viewing the bacterium under a microscope.

Until now, researchers knew of similar patterns created from saline solutions and isolated proteins, but this is the first report that demonstrates how whole bacterial cells can manage the crystallization of salt and generate self-organized biosaline structures of a fractal or dendritic appearance.

"The most interesting result is that the bacteria enter a state of hibernation inside these desiccated patterns, but they can later be 'revived' simply by rehydration," Gómez said.

He and his team believe that E. coli, given the richness and complexity of the patterns it forms, can be used as biosignatures in the search for life on other planets, including Mars, which a recent studied described in Nature World News says once housed microbial life.

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