The common bacterium E. coli (Escherichia coli) has another trick up its sleeve: in addition to making humans very sick, it can build a shelter out of salt, dry out and hang out there for, well, no one is sure how long.

And then ... and then ... when a drop of water is applied to the salt shelter, the bacterium springs back to life.

The finding has implications for the search for life on other planets. Where super-harsh conditions might lead researchers to dismiss the possibility that life could persist there, bacteria may simply lie in wait for a spritz of moisture.

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"Given the richness and complexity of these formations, they may be used as biosignatures in the search for life in extremely dry environments outside our own planet, such as the surface of Mars or that of Jupiter's satellite, Europa," said biologist José María Gómez, from the Laboratory of BioMineralogy and Astrobiological Research (LBMARS, University of Valladolid-CSIC), Spain, in a press release.

Gómez made the discovery with his home microscope. He was looking at E. coli, a bacterium that lurks, among other places, on the surface of beef and can make humans very ill if the meat isn't cooked thoroughly.

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"It was a complete surprise, a fully unexpected result, when I introduced E. coli cells into salt water and I realized that the bacteria had the ability to join the salt crystallisation and modulate the development and growth of the sodium chloride crystals,"

"Thus, in around four hours, in the drop of water that had dried, an impressive tapestry of biosaline patterns was created with complex 3-D architecture," Gómez added.

The study was published in the journal Astrobiology.