Between January 2 and 9, 1998, Louise Hose, the country's leading female cave explorer and a geology professor from Westminster College in Missouri, will lead a team of scientists into an almost unknown world--where they will study living creatures so bizarre that for centuries no one realized they were alive.
Hose's team will travel to southern Mexico to delve into the Cueva de Villa Luz, or "The Cave of the Lighted House." This unique cave has been used for centuries by the Mayan people and their descendants the Chol, for religious ceremonies. Among the Chol, the story that the cave harbor mythical powers is a long tradition. In a sense, the scientists are about to prove the truth of the ancient myth.
Hose, who first visited the cave last year, studied and collected samples of what some cavers have ingloriously but descriptively called "snot-tites" growing there. These slimy white masses, known only to grow in this cave, were thought to be bacteria, living in a highly acidic, and largely unlit environment. They excited her scientific curiosity immediately.
The truth, Hose found, was much stranger than the odd name or the old myth. She asked Norman Pace, a microbiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, to help her analyze the material. They found that the ugly masses are in fact microbial veils, colonies of microbial life, and found nowhere else in the world. Unlike most plants which use photosynthesis, these microbes oxidize sulfur as their source of energy and life. The veils can thrive in complete darkness, and produce sulfuric acid-- as strong as battery acid-- a degree of acidity rare, if not unique, in nature.
Hose, a cautious scientist, is ecstatic about the possibilities of the Cueva de Villa Luz. "This is potentially the most significant cave discovery in the past ten years or since Lechuguilla," a large but mostly dead cave at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Space scientists curious about life elsewhere in the solar system have studied Lechuguilla because of the possibility that it may at one time have harbored such creatures as are now living in Cueva de Villa Luz. Hose calls this "the most significant cave discovery as it relates to microbiology and geo-microbiology" because it offers "a different scenario of how life and ecosystems can work in a cave system. It's a world-class natural laboratory."
Hose leads an elite team of expert scientists in all aspects of caves from all across the country, including cavers, hydrologists, mineralogists, and biologists, in January. For more information about this incredible journey, contact Louise Hose at Westminster College at 573-592-5303, or try Dan Diedriech in the college news office at 573-592-1311. Norman Pace, the microbiologist at the University of California in Berkeley will not take part in the expedition, but you can contact him at 510-643-2571.
Materials provided by Westminster College. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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