For up to 50,000 years, something has been lurking in the caves of Mexico. And it’s alive. No, this isn’t the plot to Hollywood’s latest thriller. This is a bonafide scientific discovery!
Where Was the Discovery?
The crystal caves of Chihuahua, Mexico have long been a beautiful and astonishing site for tourists and geologists to discover. The impressive crystals (photographed here by Alexander Van Driessche)can grow as high as 50 feet long and four feet in diameter. Can you imagine climbing around the inside of these stunning caves? The crystals are mainly comprised of calcium sulfate and have multiple fluid pockets. The cave system that they call home are part of the Naica lead, silver and zinc mine.
What Was Discovered?
As if giant crystals weren’t enough, a recent discovery of life has been made in the Chihuahua crystal caves. Penelope Boston, a NASA astrobiologist and director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, California, and her team recently discovered microbes within the fluid pockets of the calcium sulfate crystals. After studying the crystals for over eight years, the team believes that these living microbes have been housed in the crystals for 10,000 to 50,000 years. Are you feeling claustrophobic yet?
Upon discovery, the microbes were dormant but still had signs of life. Back in the lab, Penelope Boston and her team were able to revive the microbes, regrow them and study their genetic material. They discovered that these microbes are unlike any that have been discovered before. They are not close to any known genus studied by scientists. In fact, the closest relative to the newly discovered microbes lives in caves on the other side of the world or in volcanic soil.
These microbes are extremely resilient, giving them the name extremophile. An extremophile is an organism that thrives in physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are detrimental to most life on Earth. Seeing as these microbes lived in fluid pockets for 10,000 to 50,000 years, we’d definitely say they endured some tough conditions. Add to that the fact that the crystals they called home were 300 to 1200 feet underground in temperatures between 115 and 150 Fahrenheit, and Boston’s team believes these microbes may be the most resilient extremophiles in the world.
What Does This Mean for Modern Day Science?
The team has not yet published their research but they are very optimistic about the impact of their discovery. While tiny microbes found in a crystal cave may not seem so exciting, Penelope Boston begs to differ. Despite their size, she understands the importance of this discovery and why she and her team need to continue their research on the microbe. Boston said, “These organisms are so extraordinary...Any extremophile system that we’re studying actually allows us to push the envelope of life further. We add it to this atlas of possibilities that we can apply to different planetary settings.”
So by learning how this crystal cave microbe survived for tens of thousands of years in such harsh conditions, Boston and her team may be doing the very research that will one day help humans survive for longer in extreme conditions. And given the alarming effects of climate change, we’d say this kind of research is of t