The 500-Year Science Experiment


Imagine it is the year 2514. A scientist had arrived at the University of Edinburgh, unboxed a container, and grew glass vials of bacteria left by a scientist of today’s world.

This experiment is a vision of Charles Cockells, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Though Cockells and his fellow German and U.S. collaborators will never live to discover the results of this experiment started in 2014, he hopes to use this study to analyze the longevity of bacteria.

Cockell’s inspiration came from a mistake. One day he discovered an old petri dish of forgotten dried Chroococcidiopsis cells dating back a decade. When he examined the cells he found that they were still alive. This encounter led to his present research project. Although Cockell’s inspiration was unique, many scientists have already regrown aged bacteria to study their effects. From relatively “young” bacteria obtained from canned goods to those gathered from amber and salt crystals, bacteria’s viability has been analyzed for several decades.

Cockell’s experience and the data gained from bacteria research suggest and support the idea that “life on our planet is not limited by human standards,” a statement made by Ralf Moller, a microbiologist at the German Aerospace Center and collaborator in the anticipated 500 year-long experiment.

The workings of life on Earth exist beyond the human life span and necessitate the presence of research willing to expand far into the future.

When it comes to the physical experiment, Chroococcidiopsis or other bacteria are placed in 800 hermetically flame-sealed glass vials. To prevent DNA damage of the bacteria, the vials are protected with a shield of lead to eradicate possible radiation. The vials are checked every other year for the first 24 years. Then after these initial years, they are expected to be checked every quarter century for the next 475 years. Scientists will examine the bacteria to determine their viability or DNA damage. The first set of the experiment’s data was published in December of 2018.

The physical difficulties of the experiment don’t lie in the actual maintenance requirements of the task; rather, the hard part is ensuring the experiment is remembered for the upcoming decades and even centuries. The team of researchers have left instructions for the experiment in a USB and on paper. However, these resources are not sufficient as digital technology and paper have little potential to remain in good condition for extended periods of time.

Now, questions proposed by Moller such as “Should we carve it [the instructions] in stone? Do we have to carve it in a metal plate?” surround the experiment and scientists are working to explore stronger options.

The 500 year long experiment is another example of the various long term research projects performed in the past. Although this experiment is unique, it is not the first study that has aimed for decades worth of research.

Plenty of research requiring decades of work has existed: Richard Lenski’s E-coli experiment is one of them. Lenski, a microbiologist at Michigan State University, has a project studying how E-coli mutate and evolve over generations which started in 1988. Since then, his bacteria have gone through over 70,500 generations due to the fast reproduction of E-coli. Every day, researchers are required to move the culture to a new flask and maintain the same living conditions.

After years of repetition, in 2003, Lenski’s lab discovered that the E-coli gained the ability to eat a molecule called citrate – something unlikely to be possible before years of mutations. Lenski’s experiment exemplifies the power of science. One can only imagine the possibilities that lie in the envisioned 500 year experiment.

In comparison to Lenski’s work, the 500 year long project will be less costly and labor demanding as scientists are only required to examine the cells once every 25 years after the initial 24 years. Despite this, the project will create a necessity for people to remember the experiment and commit to its potential and purpose.

As Moller describes it, “Imagine the first human who set out exploring, ‘What is behind the next hill? What is behind the next river? What is behind the next ocean?’ Our curiosity is always optimistic.” Only through the value of curiosity and thirst for knowledge will the science prevail at the end.

[Source: The Atlantic]

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