Large colonies of micro-organisms living under rocks have been discovered in the most hostile and extreme regions of the Arctic and Antarctic – giving new insights on survival of life on other planets.
Reporting in this week's Nature, scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography reveal their surprise findings that rock-dwelling micro-organisms can photosynthesise and store carbon just as much as the plants, lichens and mosses that live above ground.
BAS microbiologist Dr Charles Cockell says, "Although it's usual to find micro-organisms thriving under quartz and translucent rocks in hot deserts because enough light gets through, we wouldn't have expected this type of colonization in the polar regions where most of the rocks are opaque. Also, the harsh UV- radiation and violent winds make for a hostile environment. We found that in fact the opaque rocks protect the micro-organisms and, the movement of rocks during the annual freeze-thaw allows cracks to form and light to penetrate beneath the surface.
"This shows us that places we may think of as extreme – for example other planets like Mars – could nurture surprising habitats for life. The Poles are not the barren wilderness, devoid of life as we previously thought".
'Widespread colonization by polar hypoliths' by Charlie Cockell (BAS) and M. Dale Stokes (Marine Physical Laboratory, Scripps Institution of Oceanography) is published as a brief communication in the journal Nature on 23 September 2004.
Less than 1.2% of the Poles are covered in vegetation – over 90% of the rocks studied were colonized. Rocks were sampled from Cornwallis Island and Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic and Mars Oasis on Alexander Island on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Scientists have used Antarctica as an analogue for understanding processes on the planet Mars as it is the most Mars-like environment on Earth.
British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK's national operator in Antarctic research and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. It has an annual budget of around £40 million, runs nine research programmes and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica. More information about the work of the Survey can be found on our website: http://www.antarctica.ac.uk
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