March 4, 2014
We Who Grow Old – 250 Million Years And Counting
There’s one cool thing about being alive – you will never ever know exactly how long it is going to last. Unless, perhaps, you are just about to get fried in an electric chair or are otherwise facing summary execution and maybe even then, deep down, you hope there will be a last minute reprieve, a pardon, a broken rope or a power blow-out. For most of us it is a steady progress, that thing we call ageing, towards an unknown end and if that doesn’t give you at least a tiny sense of urgency then nothing will. It’s a fascinating thing this ageing business. It’s just a matter of perspective really – no matter how old you get it’s always the people 10 or 15 years older than you that you see as old and as for the young, well, to an older person the teenagers just get younger every year. But you never will truly see yourself as old as long as there’s someone older to compare yourself with. Apart from which, in the great scheme of things, we humans we never get to be really old at all.
The oldest authenticated person ever recorded was Jeanne Calmet who was born in the French city of Arles on February 21st 1875 and died on August 4th 1997 at the age of 122. She reportedly put her longevity down to red wine, olive oil, and good humor. Sounds like a good recipe to me. “I will die laughing,” she said. I hope she was right.
Any human lifespan pales into insignificance compared with other forms of life. We all immediately think of trees when it comes to long-living organisms. The giant redwood in California’s Sequoia National Park named General Sherman after the Civil War leader, supposedly as a deterrent to loggers, is over 2,000 years old. Some of California’s bristlecone pines, however, are twice that age. Meanwhile, out in the Mojave Desert, there’s King Clone – a ring of creosote bushes estimated to be 12,000 years old. Think that’s old? Compared to other less famous organisms they are just babies.
Down in Tasmania, Australia, carbon dating of the last surviving “clonal colony” of the shrub, known as King’s Lomatia or King’s Holly, has put its age at somewhere between 43,000 and 130,000 years. Even older is the giant underwater meadow of Mediterranean seagrass – Posidonia oceanica – which, on the basis of DNA testing, has an age of up to 200,000 years.
In 1995 a species of bacteria – Bacillus spaericus – was found in a bee that had been trapped in amber for 40 million years. But the top prize for longevity, although surrounded by controversy, goes to Bacillus permians, also known as “strain 2-9-3.” This hardy little beast had survived around 250 million years when it was found in salt deposits, protected inside a hard shelled spore, inside a 2,000 foot deep mine in New Mexico back in 1999. The bacteria were revived from their state of suspended animation. The claim that these organisms were actually a result of contamination on the part of the finders is fiercely disputed, and if the original discovery by Israeli scientists is to be believed, these are surely the oldest life form yet found.
All of which makes me feel a lot younger than when I started writing this. Now where’s that red wine. If it was good enough form Madame Calvert it’s good enough for me.
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