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…

WWI Centennial: Remembering The Zimmermann Telegram

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 263rd installment in the series.

January 16-17, 1917: The Zimmermann Telegram

Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare at the beginning of 1917 was arguably the worst strategic decision of the First World War – but Germany dug the hole even deeper by attempting to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Together these ill-advised moves turned American public opinion decisively against the Central Powers, setting the stage for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.

The secret initiative to bring Mexico into the war – which didn’t stay secret for long – was laid out in the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message first sent by the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to the U.S. Johann von Bernstorff, who passed it along to the ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt (this indirect route was used in an attempt to avoid interception, futile as it turned out; below, the coded telegram from Bernstorff).

In his previous role as undersecretary of foreign affairs Zimmermann enjoyed some success fomenting dissension abroad to distract Germany’s enemies from the European war, most notably the Easter Rising in Ireland, which complicated British war efforts and delivered a stinging propaganda defeat to the Allies, supposedly fighting for the rights of small countries. On taking the reins from the previous foreign secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, Zimmermann naturally continued his predecessor’s policy of stirring up trouble between Mexico and the U.S. in order to distract the latter – an easy task considering their fraught relations following the Mexican Revolution, Tampico Incident, the repeated depredations of Pancho Villa, and the Punitive Expedition.

But now Zimmermann planned a dangerous escalation, reflecting the mounting stakes. With unrestricted U-boat warfare set to resume on February 1, 1917, Germany’s leaders knew there was a very good chance it would provoke the United States to join the war against them, and so (despite reassuring predictions from military hardliners that the American effort would be desultory at best) were willing to consider any gambit to refocus America’s attention away from Germany – ideally on an enemy closer to home.

The Germans spared nothing in their effort to bring Mexico into the war, at least as far as promises go. The key enticement – and a diplomatic bombshell when revealed – was the offer to help Mexico win back the lost provinces of the American southwest, taken by the U.S. as spoils of victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Even more sensational, the Germans wanted Mexico to help convince Japan to turn on the U.S. as well, capitalizing on growing tension between the countries over Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean and aggression in China. The full text of the telegram delivered to Eckhardt read:

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance…