Scientists find ancient life trapped in weird cave In this image provided by Mike Spilde, Mario Corsalini stands near to a gypsum rosette crystal. (Mike Spilde via AP/Penny Boston via AP)
Scientists find ancient life trapped in weird cave
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In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old.
 
The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston, head of NASA's Astrobiology Institute.
 
"It's super life," said Boston, who presented the discovery at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston.
 
If confirmed, the find is yet another example of how microbes can survive in extremely punishing conditions on Earth.
 
Though it was presented at a science conference and was the result of nine years of work, the findings haven't yet been published in a scientific journal and haven't been peer reviewed. Boston planned more genetic tests for the microbes she revived both in the lab and on site.
 
The life forms - 40 different strains of microbes and even some viruses - are so weird that their nearest relatives are still 10 percent different genetically. That makes their closest relative still pretty far away, about as far away as humans are from mushrooms, Boston said.
 
The Naica caves - an abandoned lead and zinc mine - are half a mile deep. Before drilling occurred by a mine company, the mines had been completely cut off from the outside world. Some were as vast as cathedrals, with crystals lining the iron walls. They were also so hot that scientists had to don cheap versions of space suits - to prevent contamination with outside life - and had ice packs all over their bodies.
 
Boston said the team could only work about 20 minutes at a time before ducking to a "cool" room that was about 100 degrees.
 
NASA wouldn't allow Boston to share her work for outside review before Friday's announcement so scientists couldn't say much. But University of South Florida biologist Norine Noonan, who wasn't part of the study but was on a panel where Boston presented her work, said it made sense.
 
"Why are we surprised?" Noonan said. "As a biologist I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile."
 
This isn't the oldest extreme life. Several years ago, a different group of scientists published studies about microbes that may be half a million years old and still alive. Those were trapped in ice and salt, which isn't quite the same as rock or crystal, Boston said.
 
The age of the Naica microbes was determined by outside experts who looked at where the microbes were located in the crystals and how fast those crystals grow.
 
It's not the only weird life Boston is examining. She is also studying microbes commonly found in caves in the United States, Ukraine and elsewhere that eat copper sulfate and seem to be close to indestructible.
 
"It's simply another illustration of just how completely tough Earth life is," Boston said.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is life on Earth “extremely tough and extremely versatile?”
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COMMENTS (4)
  • lukej1-pla
    3/07/2017 - 02:15 p.m.

    I thought this article was very interesting. The author discusses how the scientific team made the initial discovery and the challenges they faced while in the caves (heat, depth, time constraints, etc.) The microbes had been living off an abundance of iron and manganese found within the crystals, and the 50,000 year age was determined based on the microbes' locations within the crystals themselves.

    Learning about scientific discoveries such as this pertaining to the mystery of life and our evolution always intrigues me. It's cool to know our origins as humans as well as past environments that promoted our evolution. One question I did have while I was reading was about the extreme heat in the caves: was it due to the cave's insulation by the minerals or did it have more to do with potential pockets of pressurized gases or some other material present under the ground, near the caves?

  • kadyk-obr
    3/09/2017 - 05:04 p.m.

    I thought this article was very elaborate, and had the perfect amount of information on the topic. I think that Noonan was correct when they said that life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile. As you know the word 'versatile' means able to adapt or to be adapted to many different functions or activities, which the Earth can definitely do! I think that Boston was very driven in her work, considering the fact that she has worked in many different countries around the world. I also think that the crystal photograph above the article was very interesting. And, the fact that the microbes' were able to live within the crystal was truly fascinating.

  • jowinleip-obr
    3/09/2017 - 05:29 p.m.

    Why is life on Earth tough and versatile? I personally think that life is tough because sometimes, there are fights, and family issues. In the article it said, "As a biologist I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile." When she said that in the article I thought that probably her life is more harder as a biologist, and I'm just a student who learns new things from time to time.

  • laurenc-smi1
    3/28/2017 - 07:37 a.m.

    Life on Earth is definitely tough and versatile! Due to our extreme change of climate, storms, heat underneath us, oxygen, and water. We are very diverse from other planets. Like Mars, they don't have gravity or air or water like we do.

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