Lifeforms which have been living inside crystals for up to 60,000 years have been revived by NASA, raising hopes that alien organisms could be found in extreme environments on other planets.
The Mexico’s Naica Mine in Chihuahua is filled with giant gypsum crystals which look so extraordinary that when Dr Boston first saw a picture, she assumed it had was a Photoshop hoax.
But more astounding, was that inside the crystals, tiny bugs were discovered in a state of ‘geolatency’ – where living organisms remain viable in geological materials for long periods of time.
Around 100 different bugs, which were mostly bacteria, were found inside crystals, where they had been trapped for between 10,000 and 60,000 years. 90 per cent had never been seen before.
The cave system sits above a large pocket of volcanic magma and is geothermally-heated to temperatures of up to 60C, which has led to astrobiologists dubbing it ‘hell’.
Most life could not survive there but scientists have discovered some organisms have evolved to feed on the sulphides, iron, manganese or copper oxide in the cave.
“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.”
Scientists said discoveries such as this raised the possibility that dangerous bugs could hitch a ride back to Earth when spacecrafts return from other planets.
NASA has plans to bring back rock and ice samples from Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, which is one of the best targets in the solar system for life because it has a salty ocean beneath its crust.
“If we bring samples back from either Europa or Mars, we will contain them until hazard testing demonstrates that there is no danger and no life, or continue the containment indefinitely while we study the material.
“It is assumed that such life would be hardy – to survive the trip to Earth; not easy – and precautions taken would provide a very high degree of containment.