This is big news, despite the seemingly diminutive size of the findings. These small creatures, who feed on iron, sulfur and other chemicals, have been found trapped inside enormous crystals deep inside a cave in the Naica mine in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico. What’s even more astonishing? These microbial life-forms are thought to be new to science.
Researchers who came across these organisms find that they have remained active, even though they have remained “slumbering” for thousands and thousands of years. If they are correct, it stands that life of this planet can withstand even more intense locations, time, and circumstances than scientists previously concluded.
Penelope Boston, the director of NASA Astrobiology Institute, said in a statement, “This has profound effects on how we try to understand the evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet.”
Why is NASA involved, you may ask. Well, a better understanding of our world can help us better understand other worlds. While drilling into our own world, and while exploring distant planets some day, we must be aware that microorganisms and microbial lifeforms are far more pervasive and tough. It is likely that this discovery could affect things in the short-term, as well as the long term. This may lead to increased sterilization of spacecraft, for example.
Boston puts this quote compellingly when she notes, “How do we ensure that life-detection missions are going to detect true Mars life or life from icy worlds rather than our life?”
Part of what makes this finding so special is that no one knows, at least for sure, how long life of any kind can survive when dormant. Even sleeping or dormant organisms need food eventually, or else their cells will start to degrade.
However, there is a theory that it is possible that the organisms from within the crystals are eking out a meager living using the limited energy sources in the fluids in which they were found, such as by eating dead microbes.
As for next steps? Boston says, diplomatically, “Since I have stepped into a NASA management role now, my time for science is quite limited,” Boston says. The microbes her team collected, she adds, are “a precious resource, and we want to make it available to other folks. There’s still a lot of work to do to infer anything about their history and movement and genetic relations.”
The above image is from Flickr user StoreBukkeBruse and is not a picture of the mines or of the specific crystals found in the mine.