Giant cave crystals may be home to 50,000-year-old microbes

cave microbes and crystals
cave microbes and crystals

Microbes were found in the fluid pockets of enormous crystals within Mexico’s Naica mine. The germs may have been trapped in these minerals for up to 50,000 years.

BOSTON, Mass. — Scientists have turned up truly ancient microbes. They extracted them from giant cave crystals in Mexico. The stowaways may have survived there, unseen, for tens of thousands of years, new data indicate. Vastly different from nearly all other life-forms known, these germs offer a good indication of how resilient life can be in extremely harsh environments — even, potentially, conditions on other worlds.

“These organisms are so extraordinary,” says Penelope Boston. She is the director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, Calif.

Boston spoke here during a February 17 news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The microbes she described are not closely related to any known genus, she said. Some of their closest relatives live in caves halfway around the world. Others make their homes in volcanic soils or thrive on toxic chemicals, such as toluene (TAHL-you-een).

Full of lead, silver and zinc, the Naica Mine is in Chihuahua, Mexico. For eight years, Boston was part of a team probing microbes there. The crystal stowaways they turned up had been in fluid pockets inside massive crystals of calcium sulfate.

One might think of these microbes as having been tucked away…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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