Scientists find ancient life trapped in weird cave
In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals. The evidence of life could be 50,000 years old.
The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico. They were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston. She is the head of NASA's Astrobiology Institute.
"It's super life," said Boston. She 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. Then the team members would have to duck to a "cool" room. It was about 100 degrees.
NASA wouldn't allow Boston to share her work for outside review before the Feb. 24 announcement. So scientists couldn't say much. But University of South Florida biologist Norine Noonan said it made sense. Noonan wasn't part of the study but was on a panel where Boston presented her work.
"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. They 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. These microbes 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.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is life on Earth “extremely tough and extremely versatile?”
Write your answers in the comments section below