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Wherever scientifics look, they found viruses

Wherever scientifics look, they found viruses Wherever scientifics look, they found viruses
Source: Piotr Dura via Artstation
A Planet of Viruses
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A Planet of Viruses
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Fifty miles southeast of the Mexican city of Chihuahua is a dry, bare mountain range called Sierra de Naica. In 2000, miners worked their way down through a network of caves below the mountains. When they got a thousand feet underground, they found themselves in a place that seemed to belong to another world. They were standing in a chamber measuring thirty feet wide and ninety feet long. The ceiling, walls, and floor were lined with smooth-faced, translucent crystals of gypsum. Many caves contain crystals, but not like the ones in Sierra de Naica. They measured up to thirty-six feet long apiece and weighed as much as fifty-five tons. These were not crystals to hang from a necklace. These were crystals to climb like hills.

Since its discovery, a few scientists have been granted permission to visit this extraordinary chamber, known now as the Cave of Crystals. Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz, a geologist at the University of Granada, made the journey and figured out that the crystals formed when volcanoes began to form the mountains 26 million years ago. Subterranean chambers took shape and filled with hot mineral-laced water. The heat of the volcanic magma kept the water at around 136 degrees, the ideal temperature for the minerals to settle out of the water and form crystals. Somehow the water stayed at that perfect temperature for hundreds of thousands of years, allowing the crystals to grow to surreal sizes.

In 2009, another scientist, Curtis Suttle, paid a visit to the Cave of Crystals. Suttle and his colleagues scooped up water from the chamber's pools and brought it back to their laboratory at the University of British Columbia to analyze. When you consider Suttle's line of work, his journey might seem like a fool's errand. Suttle has no professional interest in crystals, or minerals, or any rocks at all for that matter. He studies viruses.

There are no people in the Cave of Crystals for the viruses to infect. There are not even any fish. The cave has been effectively cut off from the biology of the outside world for millions of years. Yet Suttle's trip was well worth the effort. After he prepared his samples of crystal water, he put them under a microscope and saw protein shells loaded with genes. Each drop of cave water may hold two hundred million viruses.

Just about wherever scientists look—deep within the earth, on grains of sand blown off of the Sahara Desert, under mile-thick layers of Antarctic ice—they find viruses. And when they look in familiar places, they find new ones. In 2009, Dana Willner, a biologist at San Diego State University, led a virus-hunting expedition into the human body. The scientists had ten people cough up sputum and spit it into a cup. Five of the people were sick with cystic fibrosis, and five were healthy. Out of that fluid, Willner and her team fished out fragments of DNA, which they compared to databases of the tens of millions of genes already known to science. Before Willner's study, the lungs of healthy people were believed to be sterile. But Willner and her colleagues discovered that all their subjects, sick and healthy alike, carried viral menageries in their chests. On average, each person had 174 species of viruses in the lungs. But only 10 percent of those species bore any close kinship to any virus ever found before. The other 90 percent were as strange as anything lurking in the Cave of Crystals.

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