NASA scientists recently made an important discovery—but not in space. This one comes from inside the Naica Cave in Mexico, also known as the “Cave of Crystals.” Not only does the cave, located roughly 1,000 feet beneath the Naica Mine, contain some of the most massive gypsum crystals ever discovered, but it’s also something of a sweat lodge. Unlike most caves, which are shielded from heat, Naica’s temperature reaches well over 100 degrees—136 °F at its hottest—with humidity in the 90-100% range. This is where it’s handy to be from NASA, which has adapted spacesuits to keep its researchers cool.
Naica mine and crystals. Credit: NASA/JPL
These conditions have fostered the growth of the crystals, some of which are nearly 40 feet long and can clock in at over 100,000 pounds. Within these crystals, there are tiny bubbles of gas and liquid, and within these bubbles, scientists found microbes they believe are at least 50,000 years old.
The scientists harvested microbial samples and revived them in a lab. They believe that in the absence of sunlight, the microorganisms lived on iron and manganese in the crystals. Genetic testing revealed roughly 40 strains of both microbes and viruses, and thus far, analysis suggests that they’re unlike anything previously identified on each. Director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, Dr. Penelope Boston, calls them “extraordinary” and says “they are not very closely related to anything in the known genetic databases.”
Boston plans to continue testing the microbes, which continue to grow in a lab. Boston has studied caves for years because of organisms that bear little resemblance to other known life may provide insight into life on Mars or other planets. The idea that life can exist not via photosynthesis but via chemosynthesis—as it also does in the depths of the ocean—represents an important advancement in our conventional understanding of what life is, how it forms, and how it survives in extreme conditions. The finding also could impact our knowledge about how life might have started on earth, as well as the potential of extraterrestrial contamination or back-contamination.