Life That May Be 50K Years Old Found Trapped in Crystals

Scientists say the microbes are not only old but also very weird
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 18, 2017 11:49 AM CST
Biologists Find Weird Cave Life That May Be 50,000 Years Old
New Mexico Tech professor Penny Boston crawls through the Mud Turtle Passage on the way to the Snowy River formation during an expedition in Fort Stanton Cave, N.M.   (Susan Montoya Bryan)

In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it's called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old, the AP reports. The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston, head of NASA's Astrobiology Institute. She presented the discovery Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. If confirmed, the find is yet another example of how microbes can survive in extremely punishing conditions on Earth.

The life forms—40 different strains of microbes and even some viruses—are so weird that their nearest relatives are still 10% different genetically. That makes their closest relative still pretty far away, about as far away as humans are from mushrooms, Boston said. The Naica caves—an abandoned lead and zinc mine—are half a mile deep. Some were as vast as cathedrals, with crystals lining the iron walls. They were also so hot that scientists had to don cheap versions of space suits—to prevent contamination with outside life—and had ice packs all over their bodies. Boston said the team could only work about 20 minutes at a time before ducking to a "cool" room that was about 100 degrees. (More microbes stories.)

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