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Crystals Large and Small Will Absolutely Blow Your Mind

If the magnification is high enough, the crystals formed through the interaction of silica polymers with barium carbonate precipitation can take on the appearance of leaves or delicate tendrils. Such shapes are called silica biomorphs. Matthias Kellermeier / Stephen Hyde / Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz

This is the big year for crystals — but we're not talking about Crystal smartphones or celebrity diamond rings. We're talking about the International Year of Crystallography, and the scientific study of crystals ranging from giant pillars of gypsum to tiny swirls of silica.

It so happens that Spanish researcher Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz is familiar with both ends of the scale. During this week's International Union of Crystallography Congress and General Assembly in Montreal, Garcia-Ruiz discussed the factors behind the formation of giant gypsum crystals in Mexico's Naica mine.

Some of Naica's crystals are more than 30 feet (9 meters) in length and half a million years old — and they make the cave look like a real-life version of Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

"In Naica, several geologic conditions have been fulfilled to form the giant crystals — including the existence of two minerals with reverse solubility vs. temperature, a hot point, and very slow cooling for thousands of years," Garcia-Ruiz explained in a news release.

Garcia-Ruiz is also studying nanoscale crystals of silica that can take on eerily organic shapes. These "biomorphs" could easily be mistaken for worms, flowers or interwoven tendrils, and that could complicate the search for traces of primordial life on Earth or elsewhere in the universe.

Image: Silica biomorphs
These silica biomorphs were formed by the interaction of silica polymers with barium carbonate precipitation. Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz, a researcher and professor for Spain’s National Research Council at the University of Grenada, is investigating whether the ability of silica to trigger self-organization may have played a catalytic role in the formation of organic molecules from inorganic minerals. Matthias Kellermeier / Stephen Hyde / Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz

"We’ve demonstrated ... that under similar conditions to the primitive Earth, silica interacts with carbonates to form complex, self-assembled, purely inorganic structures with shapes that are indistinguishable from those considered to be remnants of the oldest life on Earth," Garcia-Ruiz said.

That suggests that we might not be able to discriminate between biological and non-biological structures based purely on their shape — an issue that came to light in 1996 during the debate over "nanofossils" in a meteorite from Mars. "We need to develop new analytical tools to reveal when life appears in this planet and [to determine] whether or not there is life elsewhere," Garcia-Ruiz said.