At the 2017 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, researchers presented their recent study of some peculiar microbes found in a mine outside Chihuahua, Mexico. What makes these microbes so unique is the fact that they do not resemble any other known life forms on Earth and might even represent a whole new class of organisms. Researchers were able to revive the organisms in their laboratory, allowing the chance to study a completely novel form of life.
The organisms were found encased in tiny fluid pockets within crystals growing deep within the Naica mine. While a precise age for these microbes has not yet been determined, researchers estimate them to be between 10,000 and 50,000 years old. The temperatures in the mine range between 45° to 65° Celsius (115° to 150° F) and the environment is highly acidic and devoid of light. Thus, the fact that these microbes live in such an environment puts them in a wide group of incredibly resilient organisms called extremophiles. Extremophiles are organisms which could survive in extremely harsh environments such as those deep at the center of the Earth or even which might be found on exoplanets or asteroids.
According to lead researcher Penelope Boston, director of the NASA Microbiology Institute, the discovery of these extremophile organisms lends hope to the search for life outside of Earth:
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.
Given recent NASA announcements about organic matter found in inhospitable environments such as the dwarf planet Ceres, this discovery is an important breakthrough in our understanding of life and the wide variety of environments in which it can take hold. Rather than searching only for warm, aqueous planets, this discovery hints at the possibility that the search for life, even in the form of boring microbes, could be undertaken relatively anywhere.