How Scientists Brought Ancient Microbes Found in Ecuador Back to Life

by James Eder on February 23, 2012

New Species Found in Ancient Andean Tomb Brought Back to LifeIt sounds like something out of a horror film; a team of scientists, working far from the world’s largest population centers, succeed in bringing ancient things back to life with the power of science. This would probably end up with a swarm of zombies in the movies, but there’s no need to worry about mysterious ancient diseases this time. In fact, the worst you’re likely to get is seeing something close to chicha, an alcoholic drink fermented by several tribes living in the area about fifteen hundred years ago.

This story begins in 1980, when a reconstruction project was set in motion to clear out a neighborhood and build it into something better. By accident, more than anything else, a group of workers came across the entrance to a tomb that had been hidden for literally a millennium. Lining this tomb (and several others discovered in the surrounding area) were about two hundred bodies in total, adorned with jewelry and offerings thought to be for the afterlife. Among these offerings were works of pottery containing food and chicha, and biologist Javier Carvajal Barriga took some samples and headed into a university laboratory to see if he could bring the yeast used for fermentation back to life.

It worked.

By carefully humidifying the cells, repairing their membranes, and starting up their metabolisms, Mr. Barriga managed to resurrect the organisms and begin to study them. Of note was that the indigenous people didn’t use the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is used in modern fermentation. In fact, two strains of the resurrected yeast were of a previously unknown type, since named Candida theae. The findings in general were good news for scholars, as the discovery helped to confirm 16th-century reports of how chicha was made.

However, that’s not the end of the story.

In 2010, some bottled tea was found contaminated in Taiwan, and sent in for examination in one of Taiwan’s laboratories. The results that turned up were startling; the tea was contaminated with C. theae, the same yeast found in ancient tombs in Equador! How is this possible? The answer seems to lie even further back in history; about six thousand years ago, the Polynesian people departed from the island of Taiwan, and eventually had contact with South America. Thus, as part of the field of ‘Microbiological archeology’, it’s sometimes possible to trace human history by examining what microbes appeared in various times and places. Thus, rather than being ‘new’ in the sense of something being first created or discovered, C. theae is closer to being a previously-undiscovered microbe that’s been with us all along. If the tombs had never been discovered in Equador, we might never have been able to connect these dots of human history, a detail that goes to show just how amazing some discoveries really are.

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By James Eder


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

south america mysteries February 24, 2012 at 4:53 am

Taking back to life the microbes is pretty strange interesting though. I just hope they don’t start trying to take back to life weird things from thousand ages ago.


James Eder February 24, 2012 at 11:27 pm

See “Jurassic Park”.

In all seriousness, though, I feel like this is a truly impressive sort of achievement for mankind, though I’m not certain if this kind of thing has been done before or not. I should research that. It does help to show just how far we’ve come, while reminding us that there’s still so much we have to learn.


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