Bacteria – ‘Forever Young’: The mystery called suspended animation.

Have you ever imagined what would happen if someone is kept in a deep freezer? Why someone? he can be your enemy. In a Hollywood flick, “Forever Young”, starring Mel Gibson which was released in 1992 has an interesting story to tell. The movie is a science-fiction drama about a cryogenic or cryonic freezing experiment gone wrong. In an experimental cryonics freezing – of – human experiment, gone wrong, the main protagonist, McCormick (Mel Gibson) remains trapped into a freezer chamber and gets released accidentally after 53 years, alive and kicking.

This phenomenon in scientific parlance is termed as ‘suspended animation’. Well, we all know that nobody should try this and can well predict the outcome even after a few minutes into freezing temperatures. In school, we have all studied about the hibernation cycles of a frog which are temporary phases of inactivity in the frog, but certainly not suspended animation in the real sense of the term which means total cessation of life activity without being actually dead, beginning to sound confusing, isn’t it? Of course, loosely it is also defined as slowing or stopping of life processes by some means without actually terminating life itself. Well, I am not referring to the lazy kids whose parents seem to start believing in suspended animation in humans.

You will be surprised to know that bacteriologists experience this phenomenon almost daily in their labs. It is almost routine for them to open a vial of dehydrated bacteria, suspend them in a growth medium, and voila! they start growing.

Yes, you’ve understood right, bacteria can be dehydrated by freezing (freeze-drying), sealed in a vial as a white powder, and can be brought back to life, years after freezing. Yes, sounding eerie, isn’t it? This is what should be termed suspended animation. The temperature at which these bacteria are frozen can be as low as minus 98 degrees Celsius and done under vacuum. The concept first was used in the food industry to preserve food by freeze-drying.

Many of us must have been prescribed Lactobacillus acidophilus tablets for stomach upsets by physicians. Yes, they are dehydrated bacteria given as probiotics. Bacteria when dehydrated completely, enter into a state which has zero metabolism or no residual metabolism. The mystery is how a primitive cell form, a unicellular life – form, has evolved or may be retained this fascinating ability? Not an easy question to answer, of course. Well, if these are the facts than what is surprising is, why do we still say that the animal cells and animals are the more evolved life forms. May be because of human bias, as we humans have ourselves written all this scientific literature. Did the primitive cells give up this ability or just retained it during evolution is definitely an interesting question?

So now, it won’t be surprising to know that when Apollo 12 mission came back with some lunar (moon) material, it also had some bacteria belonging to the species Streptococcus, which is a common bacteria found as normal flora of the upper respiratory tract of the human body. Some bacteria generate spores that are so resilient that they are predicted to survive thousands of years. These spore – forming bacteria, form spores when they find that there is a question mark on their normal survival for some reason or the other. Interestingly, these facts again lend credence to the theory of life originating from other planets. Yes, the theory that modern life forms may have evolved from these celestial creatures sounds like a viable theory. But even in these bacterial spores there is some residual metabolism and cannot be said to be in total suspended animation as we see in the case of freeze-dried bacteria.

What is most fascinating is the million-dollar question, as to what is it that triggers life? Which is the biochemical process in the cell which kickstarts life? What is it that exists in these primitive cells which our evolved cells do not have or is it that these primitive cells have retained something during evolution which was lost during evolution? What is this ‘switch’, which has to be a single biochemical event, which gives life back to the bacteria after being freeze-dried? That’s a profound question, which is keeping biologists busy in their modern labs day in and day out. Till we get the answer don’t try cryopreserving your enemy because you will be tried for homicide for certain and that your enemy is an alien could be your only defense. What Philip Emeagwali, a computer scientist remarked definitely makes sense,

‘Scientists try to discover or unravel the mysteries of nature. Some of the problems that we are trying to solve have been solved in nature’

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