In the cave of Naica Mine, Mexico, a team of researchers have discovered life forms (40 strains of microbes and some viruses) trapped inside giant crystals. The biologists estimate that these ancient life forms could be 50,000 years old.
Penelope Boston, chief of NASA’s Astro-biology Institute in California, on Friday announced that the bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant inside the famous giant crystals of the Naica mountain caves, Mexico. The scientists also determined that the microbes were able to exist by living on minerals like iron and manganese and other metallic elements, using them to produce the required nutrients.
“It’s super life,” said Boston, who presented her findings Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston. The evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet is not new to science. This form of life is remarkably diverse and has been subject of intense research over the year. However, ancient microbes found in Mexican cave have never been reported before. If confirmed, the find is yet another example of how microbes can survive and endure in extremely conditions on Earth.
According to chief of the NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, Penelope Boston, “these organisms have been dormant but viable for geologically significant periods of time, and they can be released due to other geological processes.” “This has profound effects on how we try to understand the evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet, “she added.
To make sure they weren’t just dead remnants of the originals, the team of biologists extracted long-dormant microbes from the crystals and managed to successfully revive the microbes both on the site and in a laboratory. She is planning on running more tests.
Located in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Naica caves are known for zinc, lead and silver deposits and crystals, some of which are more than 30 feet long and the largest of which is a staggering 12 meters (39 feet) long and weighs 55 tonnes (61 tons). The cave of the crystals are almost 800 meters (2,625 feet) deep and have been isolated from rest of the world until a mine company started drilling the place for minerals.
The findings are the results of intense work for nine years and. Before drilling occurred by mining companies, the mines had been completely cut off from the outside world. Some were as vast as cathedrals, with crystals lining the iron walls. The mines were also so hot that scientists had to wear protective suits (light versions of space suits) with ice packs all over their bodies, that prevented contamination from the outside world. Ms Boston said the team could only work about 20 minutes at a time before having to cool down in a room that was about 38C (100F).
University of South Florida biologist Norine Noonan, who did not take part in the research but was on a panel when Ms Boston presented her work, said, “Why are we surprised? As a biologist I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile.”
The 50,000-year-old microbes are not the oldest form of extreme life. Several years ago, a different group of scientists published a study about microbes that may be half a million years old and still alive. These organisms were trapped inside salt or ice crystals, which isn’t quite the same as crystal or rock, Ms. Boston said.
“It’s simply another illustration of just how completely tough Earth life is,” Boston said.