The microbes found inside the glittering crystals at the Mexican cave have been revived, and they may be between 10 000 and 50 000 years. The microbes are from the Cave of the Crystals sited in the Naica Mine, in the Chihuahua state. The chamber is filled with selenite crystals with hundreds of thousands of years, formed in magma-heated, mineral-rich groundwater.
Inside the crystals, there are small fluid-filled pockets, from which scientists cultured never before seen organisms.
“What we have been finding are organisms whose closest relatives are also from extreme environments around the world”, said the principal researcher Penelope Boston, also director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. (Astrobiologists study extreme life on Earth to understand the sort of environments that might be amenable to life on other planets).
The Naica crystals were only discovered by accident back in 2000, and were accessible only after the company that operated the Naica Mine pumped the groundwater out of the chamber. Even so, reaching the beauty of the Cave of the Crystals was a challenge: The 90 to 100 percent humidity and temperatures ranging from 45 to 50 degrees Celsius, mean that humans must wear protective clothing packed with ice bags and leave the cave quickly, meaning that can only stay for about 30 minutes.
The idea to search for a revive the microbes on the crystals of the cave, arose right at the beginning of the discovery, back in 2000. Paolo Forti, an emeritus teacher at the University of Bologna, in Italy, was the one who discovered what looked like to be microbe fossils in the cave’s samples.
While drilling the crystals in 2009, the researchers took measures to prevent the contamination of the ancient microbes. For the effect, they used both sterile drills and drill bits, wore sterile gloves and sanitized the surface with hydrogen peroxide. They also used sterile micropipettes to extract the fluid.
The researchers then applied portions of the fluid in different growth media, to see if the microbes start metabolizing, and some did! The ones that did grow were genetically completely different from any know living microbes, and based on the growth rate of the crystals, they were probably isolated somewhere between 10 000 and 50 000 years ago.
Of course, there is always the chance that the bacteria entered the crystals through microfractures, but the researchers are convinced the microbes are truly ancient.