NASA scientists have found living microbes trapped in crystals for 60,000 years in a mine in Mexico, giving them reason to hope that one day, similar hardy microorganisms could be found on other planets. The microbes inside the crystals NASA scientists discovered in Mexico’s Naica mine apparently subsist on the copper oxide, manganese, and sulfite that compose the crystals.
Phys.Org reported that Dr. Penelope Boston of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute presented the findings this past weekend “at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.” Dr. Boston said that the living microbes trapped inside the crystals in the mine have profound effects on the methods of understanding the evolutionary history of microbial life on Earth.
The living microbes were found in the Naica mine, which is located in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua. The crystals were huge, measuring 50 feet. Dr. Boston and her colleagues discovered approximately 100 different types of microorganisms, which were mostly bacteria, trapped inside the crystals.
BBC News reported that Dr. Boston and her colleagues were able to extract microbes that had been long-dormant, from inside the giant crystals, and then revive them. Dr. Boston said the microbes extracted are not related to anything currently known in the genetic databases.
The environment inside the Naica caves in Mexico “is hot (40-60C), humid and acidic.” The lack of light at the depth the microbes have been found indicates that the microbes have sustained themselves via “chemosynthesise,” or, in other words, by “processing rock minerals” to derive the energy they need to survive. If life exists in our Solar System, some scientists believe “it is most likely to be underground, chemosynthesising like the microbes of Naica.”
The findings of Dr. Boston and the other NASA scientists involved in studying the living microorganisms within the crystals have “not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.” Besides the microorganisms helping provide insights on how microbial life has evolved on Earth, Dr. Boston believes that they provide insights into how “living organisms may also have survived in the extreme environments of other planets and moons in our solar system.”
The oldest of the microbes found still living within the crystals inside the Naica mine in Mexico are approximately 60,000 years old, though some that have been discovered are relatively youthful, at 10,000 years old. Dr. Boston said ninety percent of the microbe have never been observed until now.
The very hardiness of the microbes discovered by the NASA scientists inside the Naica mine has caused some concern for astrobiologists that the samples collected and brought back “on space missions in the solar system” might contain “dangerous extraterrestrial organisms.” Astrobiologists have also expressed concern regarding the possibility that Earth organisms could potentially contaminate other planets during the course of space travel, such as the upcoming Mars expedition.
According to The Nation, Dr. Boston rhetorically asked how should we go about ensuring that life-detecting missions are indeed going to detect true Mars life or life from icy worlds rather than our life?
Even the oldest microorganisms found living within the crystals in Mexico’s Naica mine do not come close in age to the oldest microbes that have been discovered. The oldest microbes discovered by scientists so far have been found “in ice and salt,” and were reportedly “up to 500,000 years old.”
By John Samuels