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Last month, the Deep Carbon Observatory announced an astounding fact: the mass of the microbes living beneath Earth’s surface amounts to 15 to 23 billion tons of carbon, a sum some 245 to 385 times greater than the carbon mass of all humans. That’s amazing. It wasn’t so long ago we weren’t even sure life at depth was possible.

But buried in the press release was a detail I found much more surprising and interesting than the mass of subterranean life: its age.

Back in the late 1920s, a scientist named Charles Lipman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, began to suspect there were bacteria in rocks. Not fossil bacteria. Alive bacteria.

He had been contemplating the fact that bacteria in his laboratory could be reanimated after 40 years in dry soil in sealed bottles. If they could survive four decades, was there really any limit?

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