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Hidden biosphere discovered beneath world's driest hot desert

Hidden biosphere beneath world's driest hot desert
Study site, showing digging works and lab truck. Credit: Lucas Horstmann, GFZ-Potsdam

In a finding with implications for the search for extraterrestrial life, researchers have discovered microbial life 13 feet below Earth's most inhospitable desert. The research is published in the journal PNAS Nexus.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest hot desert in the world. Higher life forms are almost entirely absent, but the hyper-arid soil, rich in and sulfates, does harbor bacteria.

The first 80 centimeters of soil is thought to be a possible refuge from harsh UV light, a place where some water might be found. But what of deeper horizons? Dirk Wagner and colleagues sought to extend understanding of the desert's biota to the deep subsurface world. The authors dug more than four meters down in a playa of the Yungay Valley to collect .

The authors devised a novel extraction method to ensure that the sampled DNA was from living organisms.

  • Hidden biosphere beneath world's driest hot desert
    The upper part of the sampled soil profile. Credit: Dirk Wagner, GFZ-Potsdam
  • Hidden biosphere beneath world's driest hot desert
    Researchers and lab truck at Yungay Playa. Credit: Lucas Horstmann, GFZ-Potsdam

Loose DNA was first washed out, then DNA inside intact cells was extracted for sequencing. In the upper 80 cm of playa sediments, were dominated by Firmicutes. Below 200 cm, a different microbial community was discovered, dominated by Actinobacteria.

Some bacteria showed genetic similarity to Geodermatophilus pulveris and Modestobacter caceresii. The authors suggest that this community might have colonized the soil 19,000 years ago, before being buried by playa deposits, and hypothesize that the community could continue downwards for an indefinite distance, representing a previously unknown deep biosphere under hyper-arid desert soils. The deep bacterial community possibly relies on gypsum for water.

The authors note that Mars also has gypsum deposits, which could theoretically serve as a source of water for microbial life.

  • Hidden biosphere beneath world's driest hot desert
    Yungay Playa with typical dry cracks. Credit: Lucas Horstmann, GFZ-Potsdam
  • Hidden biosphere beneath world's driest hot desert
    A view of Yungay Playa. Credit: Dirk Wagner, GFZ-Potsdam

More information: Lucas Horstmann et al, Persistent microbial communities in hyperarid subsurface habitats of the Atacama Desert: Insights from intracellular DNA analysis, PNAS Nexus (2024). DOI: 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgae123

Journal information: PNAS Nexus

Provided by PNAS Nexus

Citation: Hidden biosphere discovered beneath world's driest hot desert (2024, April 24) retrieved 25 May 2024 from
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