Postprint version. Published in Microbial Ecology, Volume 48, Issue 1, April 1, 2004, pages 120-127.
A growing body of evidence now supports the isolation of microorganisms from ancient materials. However, questions about the stringency of extraction methods and the genetic relatedness of isolated organisms to their closest living relatives continue to challenge the authenticity of these ancient life forms. Previous studies have successfully isolated a number of spore-forming bacteria from organic and inorganic deposits of considerable age whose survival is explained by their ability to enter suspended animation for extended periods of time. However, despite a number of putative reports, the isolation of non-spore-forming bacteria and an explanation for their survival have remained enigmatic. Here we describe the isolation of non-spore-forming cocci from a 120-million-year-old block of amber, which by genetic, morphological, and biochemical analyses are identified as belonging to the bacterial species Micrococcus luteus. Although comparison of 16S rRNA sequences from the ancient isolates with their modern counterparts is unable to confirm the precise age of these bacteria, we demonstrate, using complementary molecular and cell biological techniques, evidence supporting the view that these (and related modern members of the genus) have numerous adaptations for survival in extreme, nutrient-poor environments, traits that will assist in this bacterias persistence and dispersal in the environment. The bacterias ability to utilize succinic acid and process terpine-related compounds, both major components of natural amber, support its survival in this oligotrophic environment.