Scientists working within Mexico's Naica Mine cave system have revived ancient microbes that have likely been trapped inside the massive crystals found there for 50,000 years, reports Phys.org.
Naica Mine is an otherworldly place that is both so strikingly beautiful and hot (temperatures there regularly reach over 130 degrees Fahrenheit) that it's called Fairyland by some, and called Hell by others. It's perhaps best characterized by the enormous selenite crystals that grow within it, so large that they dwarf the human explorers who walk among them. And, it turns out, those crystals have been harboring an ancient secret, vestibules for bizarre organisms that are so different from all known living things that scientists don't know what to make of them yet.
"It's super life," said Penelope Boston, head of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, who presented the discovery at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston.
Boston detailed up to 40 different strains of microbes — and even some viruses too — that are so weird that their nearest known relatives are about as far away genetically as humans are from mushrooms. Many of them were revived on site, demonstrating just how resilient life can be under some of Earth's most punishing conditions. That they were able to survive dormant within tiny pockets of liquid within the crystal structures for so long shows how life might still hang on to existence on other planets like Mars.
The conditions in the cave are so otherworldly and extreme that scientists had to essentially wear cheap versions of space suits filled with ice packs to keep themselves cool, as well as limit the amount of time they spent in the hottest caverns. The environment in the caves is also oppressively acidic, and 1,000 feet below the surface, the only light is artificial and carried in.
The findings have not yet been published, so the work still needs to be peer-reviewed, but it's the culmination of nine years of work. Boston and her team have already planned more genetic tests for the microbes.
Although 50,000 years old sounds like it ought to be some kind of record, these aren't the oldest extreme organisms ever found. That title belongs to another group of microbes first discovered a few years ago that were dated to half a million years old, found trapped in ice and salt, still alive and "kicking."
"It's simply another illustration of just how completely tough Earth life is," said Boston.