At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute Penelope Boston announced the discovery of microorganisms in the Naica cave in Mexico, also known as the Cave of the Crystals (photo ©Alexander Van Driessche ) because of the enormous gypsum crystals in which the bacteria were found. Those might be unique extremophile bacteria that adapted to the conditions existing in the cave.
The Cave of the Crystals is the by far the most peculiar of a mining complex. For a long time the area has been a lead and silver mine and only in 2000 during the excavation of a new tunnel they discovered the cave containing selenite crystals, a type of gypsum, several meters long with a diameter of up to two meters, hence the name. It was closed to preserve intact that really special environment.
The research in the Cave of the Crystals are very difficult because of the environmental conditions really at the edge of survival for humans. The temperature is always higher than 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) with a humidity close to 100%, a combination bearable by humans only for a few minutes. The researchers had to use ice filled suits to be able to spend a little more time in it but even so it’s possible to stay in it only a limited time and with caution to avoid fainting or worse if relief efforts are not very quick.
Under these conditions, with the addition of the darkness, bacteria were found that could be a species that adapted to that extreme environment. The metabolism of bacteria that live in dark caves can only be based on chemosynthesis, meaning on the use of the energy released by some inorganic reactions, in this case in place of the cave’s rocks, to produce the substances they need to survive.
The information is still limited to what Penelope Boston said because no article has been published on this research yet. It’s not the first time that microorganisms are found in the Naica mine’s area, in fact in 2013 another team of researchers reported the discovery of bacteria in the hot and saline springs of the area. This new sampling of bacteria was carried out by following various precautions but contamination is always a danger.
Unfortunately, after the end of the mining activities, the Cave of the Crystals started suffering various water infiltration so new attempts to sample bacteria would be even more difficult and the results would be even more doubtful due to the introduction of external elements.
The bacteria already sampled can still be studied and according to the information provided are vital and grow regularly. They may have been isolated in the imperfections that form small voids in the crystals for a period ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 years but this is one of the points to be verified.
For NASA, extremophile organisms are interesting because they can give an idea of the conditions in which life forms can live on other planets. It could be a very interesting finding but to establish it we must wait for further information and especially detailed analyzes of their biological and genetic characteristics.