NASA astrobiologists find new extremophile in a Mexican mine, the big question is how did they get there?

Currently on the terrestrial channel “Dave”, former WWE favourite “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is trying to find America’s “Biggest Badass”. While first shining a light on this writer’s level of extreme procrastination, it does bring to mind that while tough, the contestants are mere charlatens compared to nature’s offerings to this contest.

An array of species of viruses and bacteria have been discovered living in the crystals of this breathtaking natural phenomenon

Deep within some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, lie a class of organisms known as extremophiles. Such termed because, as the name suggests they love extreme surroundings. There are lifeforms that survive in corrosive acid, temperatures below -150oC and the crushing pressures of around 1000 atmospheres without breaking a sweat. So hardcore in fact, is this elite group, that the mighty tardigrade, a being that can go for over 30 years without water and survive the vacuum of space itself, does not even make the cut.

Therefore, it is no wonder that NASA keep a watchful eye on the science of how these creatures evolve and operate, lest some ‘super microbe’ hitch a ride back to terra firma on one of their exploratory probes.

Having already in January made a breakthrough in the ability to analyse Amino Acids, the building blocks of proteins, on other planets. They have now been able to revive and examine microorganisms from a new deposit of these extremophiles, back on home soil, in the Naica Mines of Mexico.

Dr. Penelop Boston, a speleologist, studier of caves by trade and an astrobiologist for NASA, looks at this group of creatures for NASA, “The astrobiological link is obvious in that any extremophile system that we’re studying allows us to push the envelope of life further on Earth, and we add it to this atlas of possibilities that we can apply to different planetary settings.” It was her and her team that were looking into fluid samples from these mines.

An array of species of viruses and bacteria have been discovered living in the crystals of this breathtaking natural phenomenon, an abandoned Zinc mine with crystals as large as 5 meters tall. The organisms survive by feeding on metal and thrive without easy access to oxygen within the crystals themselves.

It shows the ingenuitity of nature that even in these overwhelming conditions, life has managed to surface.

The cave system “Cueva de los Cristales”, connected to the mines, is well known, having been discovered in 1910, it has since been studied and explored extensively. This is despite it being so hot and humid that the cave has been referred to as “Hell”. It shows the ingenuitity of nature that even in these overwhelming conditions, life has managed to surface. Astoundingly, it is estimated that around 90 percent of the species were up until now, undiscovered. This discovery, gives an insight into how an ecosystem can arise in these circumstances. Geologically, it is possible to see roughly how old the organisms are dependaning on where they were in the crystal itself. based on the rate of crystal formation it is estimated that the group found are over 50,000 years old.

Relatively speaking, this is very recent on the evolutionary scale, yet their nearest known relative could be 10 percent different genetically. This certainly raises questions, if confirmed, as to the evolutionary process that lead to these organisms. Whilst Dr. Boston has now confirmed that the mines themsleves have flooded again, closing off the cave and the creatures it holds, it is an incredible reminder of what lies in store yet to be unearthed in the world.

IMAGE: Flickr

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