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UA scientists discover new microorganisms in Kartchner Caverns

PHOENIX — You might have seen the 2005 horror film “The Cave,” where a group of adventurous scientists explore the deep, nether regions of a cave and discover a new species. University of Arizona scientists have done exactly that. An entire ecosystem of microorganisms has been discovered living beneath the desert in Kartchner Caverns in southern Arizona.

“I think every time that we go into a unique environment and try to figure out how it works, we learn a new dimension of what microbes can do and how they can survive,” said Julie Neilson, a UA associate researcher.

The ability to survive in the darkness of the Kartchner Caverns — which, Neilson said, has rooms the size of football fields, with ceilings as high as 30 feet — helps scientists understand how life could survive on other planets.

“Learning how microorganisms can find a way to survive in almost any environment on this planet,” she said. “And each time some group of scientists explores a new ecosystem and figures out a new way that they can survive, it to me is very exciting.”

Neilson said the 10-year study within the caverns is significant because of potential new discoveries that will spawn from this one.

“They could be microbes that produce an antibiotic in the future, or a cancer drug that could be of use,” she said. “They could be microbes that could be used in remediation of contaminated sites.”

Microbes have many potential uses for humans, Neilson said.

“We have a whole lot more to learn. They’re probably not alien microbes, or doing anything strange,” she said in response to a “The Cave” question. “There’s a lot of organisms on this planet that still haven’t been discovered. And we still haven’t determined what they’re doing, and how they might be influencing global cycling of carbon and nitrogen and other processes that are really important to us.”