50,000 Year Old Microbes Have Just Been Found In Crystals. Alive.

NASA finds 50,000 year-old bacteria alive inside gigantic crystals in a Mexican mine.

The presentation was called “The Astrobiological Exploration of Earth and Mars” but featured the results of eight years of digging in a lead, silver, and zinc mine in Chihuaha, Mexico. The presenter was Penelope Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, Calif. It was about what they found living inside of underground crystals. No, it’s not a science-fi movie, but it is pretty cool. The ancient living organisms Boston and her team discovered in the Naica mine would give a tardigrade pause — they’re between 10,000 and 50,000 years old. And they expand the boundaries of possible extraterrestrial lifeforms and life-supporting environments.

Giant crystals in the Naica mine (ALEXANDER VAN DRIESSCHE)

“The search for life elsewhere in our solar system and beyond is one of the great intellectual enterprises of our species,” says Boston in a NASA press release. “The deeper understanding of the profound biodiversity and adaptability of life here on our own planet is part of the same continuum.”

The bacteria were found floating in pockets of liquid trapped within massive crystals of calcium sulfate. The microbes are different, too, unlike any known genus. They somewhat resemble bacteria found in the surrounding cave, but that’s about it. Their closest cousins are probably previously discovered microbes found in volcanic soils, or others that somehow survive on toluene, which is basically paint thinner.

It looks like the bacteria could have been dormant at least part of the time they were encased in the crystals, but when Boston’s team brought them back to the lab, they revived them and got them growing again. Because the microbes are consistent genetically with other bacteria found in the cave, the scientists are fairly confident their presence in the crystals is not the result of some external contamination, but that they’ve really been there the whole time. And there is pretty intense, 100 to 400 meters below the surface at temperatures of 45° to 65° Celsius (113° to 149° Fahrenheit). This places the bacteria among the toughest on earth.

Boston with much-smaller gypsum crystals from Naica (DR. TOM KIEFT)

Boston tells Science News, “Any extremophile system that we’re studying actually allows us to push the envelope of life further. We add it to this atlas of possibilities that we can apply to different planetary settings.”

The implications cut both ways. On one hand, they show just how ingenious and flexible life can be at adapting to the most hostile conditions: “If you took some of these organisms from Earth and put them elsewhere, they may do just fine,” Boston notes. On the other hand, the bacteria raise concerns about how careful we’ll have to be to prevent indestructible extraterrestrial microbes from stowing away on spacecraft returning to earth.

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller on ​the multiple dimensions of space and human sexuality

Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.

Flickr / 13winds
Think Again Podcasts
  • Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
  • What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
  • Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less

Increased air travel may decrease the chances of a global pandemic

The closer together we get, the argument goes, the healthier we'll be.

Surprising Science
  • The more exposed we are to each other, the less surprising a pathogen will be to our bodies.
  • Terrorism, high blood pressure, and staffing issues threaten to derail progress.
  • Pursuing global health has to be an active choice.
Keep reading Show less