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Microbes chow down on vittles hundreds of years old


Microbial communities living in deep aquatic sediments have adapted to survive on degraded organic matter, according to a study.

No food waste here: Microbes are eating Earth’s table scraps –– and thriving –– according to a new study.

“There are microbes living in deep ocean sediments eating carbon, like proteins and carbohydrates, that is hundreds of years old,” said University of Texas at Austin assistant environmental geology professor Andrew Steen, lead author of a study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. “However, we don’t know much about how those microbes eat that old, poor-quality food.”

The discovery could have implications for everything from combatting climate change, to aiding cell survival during transplant surgery, said the researchers, who were based at UT Austin, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“These microbes live incredibly slow lives, with cells multiplying somewhere between every 10 years and every 10,000 years, but we aren’t sure how,” Steen said in the researchers’ statement. “Our work shows that those microbes are living the same way any other microbe does, just way more slowly and with some improved ability to eat the low-quality food in their environment.”

The researchers studied 275 years of sediment in the White Oak River estuary in North Carolina using DNA analysis and measuring enzymes to determine how the microorganism metabolize without access to fresh food. About 40% of the organic carbon that’s buried in the environment is entombed in estuaries and deltaic systems, the research statement said. The study shines a light on how such communities of microbes begin breaking down organic carbon in these environments.