Year Old Microbial Life Discovered In Mexican Cave

NASA scientists have discovered living microorganisms trapped inside crystals for as long as 60,000 years in a mine in Mexico. That's promising for the hunt for life beyond Earth.

However, this is not the oldest example of extreme life.

Like a real life Fortress of Solitude, the surreal Naica mine of Northern Mexico is riddled with crisscrossing translucent spikes dozens of feet in length.

According to her team's analysis, the microbes are genetically distinct from any other known life-form on Earth, and are most similar to other microbes found in caves in volcanic terrains - places where the environment is as hot (between 100 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit), humid and acidic as it is in the Cave of the Crystals.

But for the chemosynthesizing microbes that call this hot, pitch black cave home, it's no big deal. And that means there are unknowns about what life-forms could stow away on spacecraft sent to other worlds, says Cassie Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer.

Researchers already knew microbes lived in the caves, but no one suspected they might actually be lurking inside imperfections in crystals themselves, some of which date back millions of years.

The microbes were contained in small water-filled pockets within the sparkling white crystals, some of which were five metres long and a metre wide.

Previously, scientists have been able to revive microbes far older than 50,000 years.

The new director of Nasa's Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, California, showcased her findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"These organisms have been dormant but viable for geologically significant periods of time, and they can be released due to other geological processes", she said. These guys are living in an environment where there's not organic food as we understand it.

When the researchers were working on their project to draw out lead and silver from the Cave of Crystals or Naica mines, they had to pump out the groundwater from the underground caverns. However, microbes found in Mexican cave have never been reported before. The amount of skepticism is relatively linked to the age of the claim, confessed Christner to The National Geographic. Even possible cave life on the Moon.

The 50,000-year-old microbes are not the oldest form of extreme life.

Skeptics suggest the microbes could have hitched a ride on the drill bits, making it look like they were inside the crystals the whole time.

To what Boston responded that her team took the necessary precautions to try and avoid contamination.

Moreover, the genetics backs them up, according to Boston.

They were also highly diverse, including around 100 different strains made up both of bacteria and other microbes known as archaea.

She also sees fingerprints of isolation in the way the microbes interact with local viruses.

Other caves within the underground system are too risky to explore but could also possess other "weird life forms".

"How do we ensure that life-detection missions are going to detect true Mars life or life from icy worlds rather than our life?" asked Boston. "As a biologist I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile". It would be hard to determine whether the missions are detecting alien life or just life brought with them from Earth. It was a very hard environment to work in, but tear-inducingly lovely.

  • Carolyn Briggs