Morphological and Microstructural Characterisation of Novel Nano-Organisms

In 1996, NASA scientists reported the existence of fossil nano-organisms in a 4.5 billion year old Martian meteorite, believed to have crashed to earth 13,000 years ago. They were suggested to be a form of ancient extra-terrestrial life, but this was disputed. However, the debate has been renewed by Australian scientists who have discovered “nanobes” in rock from deep beneath the sea-bed off Western Australia. Initial studies indicate it may be the smallest life form yet, measuring only 20 nanometres in size.

In 1996, NASA scientists in Houston reported the existence of fossil nano-organisms in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, which crashed to Earth in Antarctica about 13,000 years ago. The scientists initially suggested that these tiny egg-shaped fossils (20-100nm) were evidence of ancient extra-terrestial life on the red planet. But their claims were disputed by many. One of the main objections was that the minimum size for an organism to be alive and to hold all the genetic and enzymatic material essential for life is thought to be 200nm and these structures were at least 10 times smaller than that.

However, recently the debate has been renewed by Australian scientists’ discovery of a new kind of life form, ten times smaller than previously known. The scientists from Queensland University found the miniature life forms in a sample of rock from deep beneath the sea-bed off Western Australia. The discovery was made by accident when the Queensland scientists were carrying out routine microscopic examination of rock samples as part of a consulting project for an oil exploration company.

Measuring as little as 20 nanometres – or 20 millionths of a millimetre – the so-called ‘nanobes’ are not only smaller than any other life forms previously observed, but they are also smaller than thought possible under current biological theory.

Dr Philippa Uwins noticed ‘ball-like filamentous structures’ on her rocks. ‘I thought this is some strange form of illite [a clay mineral]. But when we revisited the samples over a number of weeks, these structures continued to grow in storage containers, which isn’t exactly typical of a clay mineral. There was nothing for it to really grow from.’

Examination revealed the structures to be tiny irregular shaped filaments less than 1/100,000 mm wide. Further experimentation and observation in the laboratory showed that the structures were capable of growing and increasing in number spontaneously on freshly fractured rock – becoming visible to the naked eye within 2 to 3 weeks.

Dr Uwins and her colleagues subjected the growing structures to DNA and chemical composition tests, which all gave strong positive evidence that what they had found was alive.The most powerful argument in favour of them being biological life forms comes from the strong positive reaction to DAPI staining – where a DNA-specific probe is used to determine the existence of DNA compounds vital to living organisms.

If the work done by Dr. Philippa Uwins and her colleagues proves valid in the face of additional investigation and analysis, the discovery of nanobes may become one of the most remarkable and significant discoveries of our age!