Mexico’s Naica Mine in Chihuahua was originally explored to find lead, zinc and other minerals, but as teams excavated deeper into the caves, they found an amazing jungle of crystal creations in various different chambers. Researchers say that these cavers hold some of the largest crystals ever seen by human eyes.
However, the caves are dangerous. Not only are they very deep and treacherous with sharp, jagged edges and deep falls, but the caverns are also extremely hot. Many areas of the caves can reach up to 136° F, and humans can only stay in this heat for 10 minutes at a time without special equipment.
NASA researchers have been studying the caves over the years, and have recently found lifeforms that have been dormant for nearly 60,000 years. The lifeforms have been living inside the crystals, in conditions that most earth-based organisms would not be able to handle. This discovering is giving NASA some insight into how organisms might survive on other planets where conditions are much different, and much harsher from our perspective.
Penelope Boston, one of the NASA researchers studying the caves, says that they were able to find the organisms because of a process called ‘geolatency,’which allows organisms to freeze themselves in time in geological materials. The researchers were then able to grow these lifeforms in a lab.
“Much to my surprise we got things to grow. It was laborious. We lost some of them – that’s just the game. They’ve got needs we can’t fulfill. That part of it was really like zoo keeping,” Dr. Boston said.
“They’re really showing us what our kind of life can do in terms of manipulating materials,” she added.
Over 100 different organisms were found inside the crystals, and although most of these were bacteria, 90 percent were never observed on Earth before.
Unlike most earth-based lifeforms, these organisms thrive sulfides, iron, manganese, and copper oxide.
“These guys are living in an environment where there’s not organic food as we understand it. They’re an example at very high temperatures of organisms making their living essentially by munching down inorganic minerals and compounds. This is maybe the deep history of our life here,” Boston says.
“A transformative experience. it really felt strange. It was a very hard environment to work in, but tear-inducingly beautiful. It’s like being inside a geode,” she added.
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