Study Shows Bacteria Can Survive 1,000 Days With Zero Food

It’s hard to say which form of life is the heartiest as there are many great contenders. Tardigrades (or “water bears”), for example, are freakin’ fantastic at floating their way through extreme environs. Now, however, we may have a new frontrunner for the least killable organism: bacteria. In a new study, scientists starved various types of bacteria for 1,000 days. The results? This life-form shrugged it off easily.

Gizmodo reported on the experiment, which researchers at Indiana University Bloomington outlined in the journal PNAS. The researchers were not looking for keys to immortality as one might expect. Rather, the study aimed to see how bacteria are so adept at surviving infection and dodging antibiotics.

A dish of yellow and orange blots of bacteria in a marked, glass petri dish for new study on bacteria surviving without food.

Jay T. Lennon / Indiana University 

For the study, the researchers took 100 populations of different bacteria and placed them in closed systems. That is, inside of Petri dishes which offered no access to external food. The team then left them alone for 1,000 days (or 2.73 years) to see how they fared. Lo and behold, the vast majority of the different bacteria types did just fine.

The researchers say that the bacteria survived thanks to their ability to enter a “quiescent,” or dormant, state. This state makes them use far less energy to stay alive. And, apparently, far less sensitive to antibiotic drug treatments as well. On top of the capability to hibernate, the sample bacteria ate the few relatives who did die. (We imagine it was basically a microscopic version of Alive in a petri dish.)

The researchers say the bacteria are incredibly hearty. Any one of the sample species could survive for 100,000 years. This claim, while speculative, has support from prior evidence.

“Obviously, these predictions extend far beyond what can be measured,” Jay T. Lennon said in a press release. Lennon, a professor at Indiana University and lead author of the study, added that “the numbers are consistent with the ages of viable bacteria that have been recovered from ancient materials, such as amber, halite crystals, permafrost and sediments at the bottom of the deepest oceans.”

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