Unusual life-forms found in giant crystals have survived for as long as 50,000 years

Crystal caves
CC BY 2.0 Alexander Van Driessche

The dormant microbes from the Mexican caves are unlike any known genus scientists have seen so far, say NASA researchers.

We humans think we’re pretty tough, but we’ve got nothing on some recently discovered life lurking around in the crystal caves of Chihuahua, Mexico.

The caves – part of the the Naica lead, silver and zinc mine – are remarkable for their enormous crystals, some reaching 4 feet in in diameter and 50 feet in length. But it’s what has been discovered inside the crystals that may be even more astonishing: New-to-science creatures that live on iron, sulfur, and other chemicals.

For the past eight years, NASA astrobiologist Penelope Boston and her team have been studying microbes trapped in fluid pockets inside the caves' massive crystals of calcium sulfate. They believe that the microbes may have been stowed away there for 10,000 to 50,000 years. While dormant for some or all of the time there, they “remained viable in some fashion and were able to be regrown,” Boston says. The researchers were able to “wake up” the microbes in the lab and have been studying their genetic material, along with other genetic material from the area.

“These organisms are so extraordinary,” Boston said during a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The microbe are not close to any known genus scientists have been able to identify, says Boston, who is the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, California. Their closest known relatives reside in caves on the other side of the planet or in volcanic soils.

While the researchers have not yet published their work, if confirmed, the microbes would be proven as of the most resilient extremophiles on Earth. Living at depths of 300 to 1200 feet underground at temperatures of 115 to 150F. (Not to mention being confined within crystal; an idea surely to inspire shudders to anyone suffering from claustrophobia.)

“Any extremophile system that we’re studying actually allows us to push the envelope of life further,” Boston says. “We add it to this atlas of possibilities that we can apply to different planetary settings.”

Via Science News and National Geographic

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