Sun, Feb 19, 2017 - Page 4 News List

Biologists discover strange cave life trapped in crystals

AP, Boston

In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals.

The bizarre microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and survive by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston, head of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

“It’s super-life,” said Boston, who on Friday presented the discovery at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in the city of Boston.

If confirmed, the find is yet another example of how microbes can survive in extremely punishing conditions.

Though it was presented at a science conference and was the result of nine years of work, the findings have not yet been published in a scientific journal and have not been peer reviewed.

Boston has planned more genetic tests for the microbes she revived both in the lab and on site.

The life forms — 40 different strains of microbes and even some viruses — are so strange that the most similar organisms are still 10 percent different genetically.

The Naica caves — an abandoned lead and zinc mine — are 800m deep. Before drilling occurred by a mining company, the mines had been completely cut off from the outside world. 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 for about 20 minutes at a time before ducking to a “cool” room that was about 38oC.

NASA would not allow Boston to share her work for outside review before Friday’s announcement, so scientists could not say much.

However, University of South Florida biologist Norine Noonan, who was not part of the study, but was on a panel where Boston presented her work, said it made sense.

“Why are we surprised?” Noonan said. “As a biologist, I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile.”

It is not the only strange life Boston is examining. She is also studying microbes commonly found in caves in the US, Ukraine and elsewhere that eat copper sulfate and seem to be nearly indestructible.

“It’s simply another illustration of just how completely tough Earth life is,” Boston said.

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