By then, the scientists who dreamed up this 500-year experiment—Charles Cockell at the University of Edinburgh and his German and U.S. collaborators—will be long dead. They’ll never know the answers to the questions that intrigued them back in 2014, about the longevity of bacteria. Cockell had once forgotten about a dried petri dish of Chroococcidiopsis for 10 years, only to find the cells were still viable. Scientists have revived bacteria from 118-year-old cans of meat and, more controversially, from amber and salt crystals millions of years old.
All this suggests, according to Ralf Möller, a microbiologist at the German Aerospace Center and collaborator on the experiment, that “life on our planet is not limited by human standards.” Understanding what that means requires work that goes well beyond the human life span.