In a strange and magical cave deep beneath the town of Naica in Chihuahua, Mexico, NASA researchers are investigating bizarre crystals that have formed underground over millennia. Then, when the team return to the surface, they discover something incredible inside the sparkling formations: organisms that have come back to life after many thousands of years.
Ever since its founding in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has worked to further mankind’s understanding of the universe. And from the first manned mission to the Moon to the wonders of the Hubble Space Telescope, the agency has overseen many successes over the years.
However, one mission that continues to challenge NASA is the hunt for life on other worlds. At the end of the 1960s, the agency began lending its expertise to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This is the collective name for a group of scientific endeavors that strive to find signs of alien civilizations.
In 1992 NASA embarked on a ten-year SETI program called the High Resolution Microwave Survey. But not even a year later, Congress put a stop to the research. Apparently, a combination of budget issues and a lack of scientific support cut the project short before it could really begin.
Today, private investors fund some of SETI’s work, which is conducted in observatories and laboratories around the world. And NASA is still involved behind the scenes too. In fact, even now, organizations are scanning the heavens, searching for technosignatures that might finally alert us to life on other planetary bodies.
SETI’s endeavors, then, typically involve looking towards the stars. Yet some researchers have been searching for answers in a rather more unlikely location. Deep below Naica – a town located in the northwestern Mexican state of Chihuahua – an astonishing discovery has been made. And it’s a discovery that could have a profound effect on the search for alien life.
The first hint that Naica held stunning scientific secrets came in 1910, when workers discovered a cavern hidden beneath the town’s mine. Located almost 400 feet below the surface, the hole in the rock was found to be filled with glittering crystals – some reaching as much as 3 feet in length.
Dubbed the Cave of Swords, this impressive find was, however, merely a taste of things to come. Yes, in April 2000 workers who were attempting to recover silver and lead from the mine stumbled across something far more incredible. Apparently, in their search for valuable resources, the miners had used a pumping system to remove groundwater from the caverns below the town.
But after Naica’s caverns had dried up, they revealed another cave full of stunning crystals – this time almost 1,000 feet below the surface. And within the main chamber, some of the massive chunks of gypsum had grown to over 30 feet in length. In fact, the biggest example measures almost 40 feet from end to end.
Remarkably, this makes the Naica specimens among the biggest natural crystals ever discovered. A type of sulfate mineral, gypsum is utilized as fertilizer – or as a component in items such as plaster and blackboard chalk. However, in its raw form, the mineral occurs in nature as a beautiful, transparent substance sometimes known as selenite.
With its magical, almost unearthly atmosphere, the Cave of the Crystals soon became famous around the globe. But it wasn’t just its otherworldly qualities that got people talking. You see, conditions in the cavern are unusually harsh, no doubt making the site of particular interest to the scientific community.
In fact, temperatures inside the Cave of the Crystals can reach a blistering 136 °F, with humidity levels as high as 99 percent. And although various researchers were keen to study these intense conditions, the cavern – unsurprisingly – presented its own unique set of challenges. For example, researchers needed protective suits for any visits that lasted longer than ten minutes.
Despite such intense challenges, though, a team of researchers led by the University of Bologna’s Paolo Forti began exploring the cavern in 2006. Equipped with special suits that allowed them to cope with the extreme temperatures, members of the team conducted a variety of studies on the crystals.
What’s more, one expert, Stein-Erik Lauritzen of the University of Bergen, Norway, subsequently determined that the crystals are incredibly old – potentially dating back as much as 500,000 years. Then, in 2008, NASA researcher Penelope Boston began her own investigation into the strange world beneath the Naica Mine. Yes, with the help of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Boston launched a quite different study into the ancient gypsum structures.
As an astrobiologist, Boston was looking for something specific within the crystals: evidence that life might be able to survive in such challenging conditions. And by studying the existence of extreme life on Earth, she and her colleagues hoped to learn more about where we might look for alien life – and what to expect once we find it.
At first, the cave photographs amazed Boston so much that she believed they had been digitally altered. But subsequently she found herself inside the cavern – its giant sparkling crystals as real as anything – working alongside her team to extract samples from deep within the formations. Apparently, liquid-filled cavities had formed inside the structures over time, and it was within these recesses that the researchers hoped to find life.
Then, almost a decade later, in February 2017, experts gathered in Boston, Massachusetts, for a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And there, Boston announced the results of her research. Amazingly, the team had discovered as many as 100 different organisms trapped within the crystals.
The creatures were mainly types of bacteria, with some forms of archaea also present. Incredibly, moreover, Boston believes that the organisms could have been living underground for up to 60,000 years. And a staggering 90 percent of them had never been seen before.
But in an underground cavern so hot that researchers took to calling it “hell,” how could these organisms possibly have survived? Well, experts believe that they may have developed the ability to feed on the cave’s copper oxide, iron, sulfides and manganese.
“They’re really showing us what our kind of life can do in terms of manipulating materials,” Boston told The Telegraph in 2017. “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 materials and compounds.”
In scientific parlance, these creatures are called extremophiles – lifeforms that can survive in the most unlikely of environments. Yet it wasn’t simply the existence of these discoveries that made them so remarkable. Astoundingly, researchers also managed to bring the ancient organisms back to life.
You see, it appears that the creatures existed in a state known as geolatency. This condition allows organisms to remain alive – yet dormant – for long periods of time. Some researchers in fact claim to have revived geolatent lifeforms after millions of years. Yet the scientific community has tended to treat such claims with a pinch of salt.
According to Boston, though, her team successfully breathed new life into the creatures from the Cave of the Crystals. “Much to my surprise we got things to grow,” she told The Telegraph. “It was laborious. We lost some of them – that’s just the game. They’ve got needs we can’t fulfill. That part of it was really like zoo keeping.”
Nobody, however, claims that the lifeforms found beneath Naica are the oldest to have been reanimated by science. And yet Boston nevertheless believes they are unique in their own way. “Other people have made longer-term claims for the antiquity of organisms that were still alive, but in this case these organisms are all very extraordinary. They are not very closely related to anything in the genetic database,” she told the BBC in 2017.
Currently, Boston’s work has yet to be verified by the scientific community. But if the results are accurate, they will prove that organisms can survive under harsher conditions than previously believed. And in turn, this revelation could fundamentally change our knowledge about microorganisms on Earth.
“These organisms have been dormant but viable for geologically significant periods of time, and they can be released due to other geological processes,” Boston told National Geographic in 2017. “This has profound effects on how we try to understand the evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet.”
Meanwhile, the time that Boston and her team spent deep underground in the cave became a truly special undertaking for them. “It was a transformative experience,” she told The Telegraph. “It was a very hard environment to work in – but tear-inducingly beautiful. It’s like being inside a geode.” And it seems that some of the crystals were so big that the researcher could not even fit her arms around them.
What’s more, from an astrobiological point of view, the discovery could have fascinating implications. If these microbes are so hardy, does that mean, for example, that extraterrestrial organisms could be equally tough? And if so, might spacecraft returning from other planets accidentally bring alien lifeforms along for the ride?
NASA is aiming to bring samples from one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, back to Earth in the future. It appears, you see, that the salty water that lies beneath the moon’s crust makes it a strong contender for harboring alien life. And Dr. John Rummel from California’s SETI Institute has said that such organisms could survive the long trip back through space.
“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,” Rummel told The Telegraph. “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.”
On the flip side, though, there is also concern that such robust organisms on Earth could complicate the search for alien life. You see, although NASA scientists take measures to sterilize their spacecraft before journeys out into the cosmos, it’s possible that some of our planet’s more durable species might get accidentally transported elsewhere.
Even without these ramifications, though, the significance of Boston’s research is clear. “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,” the BBC reported her as saying.
In fact, many believe that if there is life present elsewhere in the universe, it could be found deep under the surface of alien planetary bodies, feeding on chemicals much as the organisms in the Cave of the Crystals reportedly do. And by learning more about how such lifeforms exist on Earth, we might increase our chances of finding them elsewhere.
But Boston and her team’s findings haven’t convinced everyone. It seems, you see, that some researchers suspect the organisms might have come from the deposits of water that surround the crystals – rather than from inside the structures themselves. And experts have also expressed doubt about the lifeforms and their apparent ability to survive.
“I think that the presence of microbes trapped within fluid inclusions in Naica crystals is in principle possible,” French National Center for Scientific Research microbiologist Purificación López-García told National Geographic in 2017. “However, [the notion] that they are viable after 10,000 to 50,000 years is more questionable.”
“Contamination during drilling with microorganisms attached to the surface of these crystals or living in tiny fractures constitutes a very serious risk,” López-García continued. “I am very skeptical about the veracity of this finding until I see the evidence.” But Boston has been quick to point out that her team took steps to try and prevent such adulteration.
In fact, the researchers reportedly used everything from special protective suits to sterilized equipment to help prevent any such contamination from occurring. And in some cases, the team even went so far as to cleanse the exterior of the crystals with fire. However, the results of their study remain open to debate until the work has been properly peer-reviewed.
Unfortunately, too, opportunities for further research into these incredible organisms are limited at best. In 2017 the owners of the Naica Mine closed it down after it stopped turning over a profit. And without the aid of the enterprise’s pumps, the Cave of the Crystals flooded with groundwater once more.
Still, Boston is seemingly confident that the samples in her laboratory may have more secrets to reveal. Apparently, in fact, the organisms are still growing; and she hopes that other researchers can continue where she left off. “Since I have stepped into a NASA management role now, my time for science is quite limited,” she told National Geographic.
In order to further future research, then, Boston plans to make the organisms available for other scientists to study. Indeed, she described the lifeforms as a “precious resource” that she hopes to share. “There’s still a lot of work to do to infer anything about their history and movement and genetic relations,” she added. But maybe such efforts will one day pay off.