Honors and Awards
This has been a most enjoyable side-project for the lab over the past several years an is currently resting, waiting new sites for collection of salt samples, and spare time, which is always at a premium. The study began as a collaboration with Dr. Bonnie Baxter of Westminster college in Salt Lake City. She works on bacteria that live in the high salt environment of the Great Salt Lake. This collaboration eventually led us to ask what biological molecules might be trapped in very ancient salt deposits. One that has been examined in detail is in southern New Mexico. The deposit was laid down 253 million years ago when there was just a single continent called Pangea. Over the past several years we have visited the WIPP facility near Roswell, NM where transuranium waste is stored by the DOE. This facilityis ½ mile underground within this deep permian salt deposit. We brought back to UNC several hundred pounds of the halite(salt) and developed means of eliminating any modern biological material which might have contaminated the surface while being able to purify biological material and macromolecules that had been trapped in the halite. The result of this work has been the finding of a small amount of DNA which is likely highly crosslinked, and a large amount of cellulose microfibers. The cellulose microfibers are native in their structure and appearance. These molecules represent the oldest native biological macromolecules ever isolated on Earth. The possibility that cellulose may provide the ideal "paper trail" for detecting life on other planets has not escaped our thinking and we are persuing this avenue. A paper describing the ancient cellulose was published in Astrobiology.
One year ago we visited another deep salt mine near Barcelona, Spain and brought back samples for examination. These samples showed similar cellulose material.
Discovery of abundant cellulose microfibers encased in 250 Ma Permian halite: a macromolecular target in the search for life on other planets. Griffith JD, Willcox S, Powers DW, Nelson R, Baxter BK. Astrobiology. 2008 Apr;8(2):215-28. PMID:18366344