Never-before-seen microbes found in Chile’s desert

by: Sumy Sadurni

Santiago Times

A team led by University of Colorado-Boulder has found extremely rare life on the soil at the top of two volcanoes in Chile’s Atacama desert. Results from the 2009 expedition, released last week, said unique microbes were discovered that may be linked to research on Mars.

Team member Ryan Lynch, a doctoral student at CU-Boulder, explained the significance of this discovery to The Santiago Times in an interview Wednesday.

“Mars is pretty different from Earth,” he said. “But one of the things this research could do is help us understand and find the limit to life here, how Mars could be favorable to life.”

The driest desert on earth, the Atacama is one of the most uninhabitable environments on earth. The desert spans 600 miles and is located from Peru’s southern border into northern Chile. During winter, temperatures can go as high as 79 degrees Fahrenheit but as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

The microbes were discovered at around 6,000 meters elevation on Volcán Llullaillaco and Volcán Socompa. The thin atmosphere and high radiation in the volcanoes make them some of the most similar places on Earth to Mars. CU-Boulder Professor Steve Schmidt, who led the expedition, is also working with astrobiologists to model what past conditions were like on Mars.

What is most interesting to the researchers is the non-complexity of the new organisms. The researchers say they are capable of converting energy in a completely different way compared to known species.

“But these are very different than anything else that has been cultured,” Lynch said. “Genetically, they’re at least 5 percent different than anything else in the DNA database of 2.5 million sequences.”

The bacteria discovered have not yet been identified, as scientists continue to examine the organisms.

“The process of identifying microbes is a long one, but our next steps are to grow them in labs and test them,” Lynch told The Santiago Times. “We are making progress sequencing genes.”

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