Before the cave was opened up by a mining company, it was completely locked from the outside world, allowing these tiny creatures to evolve separately from human involvement.
“These organisms have been dormant but viable for geologically significant periods of time, and they can be released due to other geological processes,” says NASA Astrobiology Institute director Penelope Boston, who announced the find at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “This has profound effects on how we try to understand the evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet.”
Back in 2008 and 2009, Dr. Boston acquired samples from pockets of fluid trapped inside the crystals. Her team were able to “wake up” (you can already see the movie trailer, can’t you) these dormant microbes. The scientific team found there were 40 different strains of microbes and some viruses. These organisms are genetically distinct from anything known on Earth and share about 10% similarity to microbes found in caves and volcanic terrain.
These dormant caves in Naica, in the northern parts of the Chihuahua state of Mexico, were opened up by a mining company. Dr. Boston and her team set out to investigate the giant gypsum crystals found in the Naica caves. These incredibly hot caves also posed many problems for the scientists involved who could only work for 20 minutes at a time, after which they were transferred to a “cold room” which was about 38 degrees Celsius (100 F). There, their bodies were completely covered with ice. Couple that with a simplified space suit to avoid any contamination and it becomes very apparent how arduous this study and discovery was to pull off.
The microbes would represent some of the toughest extremophiles on the planet – dwelling at depths 100 to 400 meters below Earth’s surface and enduring temperatures of 45° to 65° Celsius. “They’re really showing us what our kind of life can do in terms of manipulating materials,” said Dr Boston. “These guys are living in an environment where there’s not organic food as we understand it. They’re an example at very high temperatures of organisms making their living essentially by munching down inorganic minerals and compounds. This is maybe the deep history of our life here.”
If verified, the discovery adds to evidence that microbial life on Earth can endure harsher conditions in isolated places than scientists previously thought possible. Discoveries such as this raise the possibility that dangerous microbes could hitch a ride back to Earth on returning spacecraft that visited other planets.
The nine-year study is still correlating results, and have still not been published in a peer-reviewed journal as NASA is typically very strict when it comes to new or weird life forms. Boston says she wants to conduct more genetic surveys, perhaps even mining deeper into the caves, before publishing.
Images: Penny Boston/AP, NASA