Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Microbes discovered in extreme environment on South American volcanoes

Date:
June 8, 2012
Source:
University of Colorado at Boulder
Summary:
Scientists looking for organisms that eke out a living in some of the most inhospitable soils on Earth has found a hardy few living on volcanoes that reaching nearly 20,000 feet in height.

A scientist climbs up a volcano slope in the Atacama region that straddles Chile and Argentina. Researchers took soil samples and discovered a handful of unique microbes living in the harsh environment.
Credit: Steve Schmidt

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder looking for organisms that eke out a living in some of the most inhospitable soils on Earth has found a hardy few.

A new DNA analysis of rocky soils in the Martian-like landscape on some volcanoes in South America has revealed a handful of bacteria, fungi and other rudimentary organisms called archaea, which seem to have a different way of converting energy than their cousins elsewhere in the world.

"We haven't formally identified or characterized the species," said Ryan Lynch, a CU-Boulder doctoral student involved in the study. "But these are very different than anything else that has been cultured. Genetically, they're at least 5 percent different than anything else in the DNA database of 2.5 million sequences."

Life gets little encouragement on the incredibly dry slopes of the tallest volcanoes in the Atacama region, where CU-Boulder Professor Steve Schmidt and his team collected soil samples. Much of the sparse snow that falls on the terrain sublimates back to the atmosphere soon after it hits the ground, and the soil is so depleted of nutrients that nitrogen levels in the scientists' samples were below detection limits.

Ultraviolet radiation in the high-altitude environment can be twice as intense as in a low-elevation desert, said Schmidt of CU-Boulder's ecology and evolutionary biology department. While the researchers were on site, temperatures dropped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit one night and spiked to 133 F the next day.

How the newfound organisms survive under such circumstances remains a mystery. Although Ryan, Schmidt and their colleagues looked for genes known to be involved in photosynthesis and peered into the cells using fluorescent techniques to look for chlorophyll, they couldn't find evidence that the microbes were photosynthetic.

Instead, they think the microbes might slowly generate energy by means of chemical reactions that extract energy and carbon from wisps of gases such as carbon monoxide and dimethylsulfide that blow into the desolate mountain area. The process wouldn't give the bugs a high-energy yield, Lynch said, but it could be enough as it adds up over time. A paper on the findings has been accepted by the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences, published by the American Geophysical Union.

While normal soil has thousands of microbial species in just a gram of soil, and garden soils even more, remarkably few species have made their home in the barren Atacama mountain soil, the new research suggests. "To find a community dominated by less than 20 species is pretty amazing for a soil microbiologist," Schmidt said.

He has studied sites in the Peruvian Andes where, four years after a glacier retreats, there are thriving, diverse microbe communities. But on these volcanoes on the Chile-Argentina border, which rise to altitudes of more than 19,685 feet and which have been ice-free for 48,000 years, the bacterial and fungal ecosystems have not undergone succession to more diverse communities. "It's mostly due to the lack of water, we think," he said. "Without water, you're not going to develop a complex community."

"Overall, there was a good bit lower diversity in the Atacama samples than you would find in most soils, including other mountainous mineral soils," Lynch said. That makes the Atacama microbes very unusual, he added. They probably had to adapt to the extremely harsh environment, or may have evolved in different directions than similar organisms elsewhere due to long-term geographic isolation.

Growth on the mountain might be intermittent, Schmidt suggested, especially if soils only have water for a short time after snowfall. In those situations, there could be microbes that grow when it snows, then fall dormant, perhaps for years, before they grow again. High-elevation sites are great places to study simple microbial communities, ecosystems that haven't evolved past the very basics of a few bacteria and fungi, Schmidt said.

"There are a lot of areas in the world that haven't been studied from a microbial perspective, and this is one of the main ones," he said. "We're interested in discovering new forms of life, and describing what those organisms are doing, how they make a living."

Schmidt's lab, along with others, is studying how microorganisms travel from one site to another. One common method of microbe transport is through the air -- they're caught up in winds, sucked up into clouds, form rain droplets and then fall back to the ground somewhere else as precipitation.

But on mountains like Volcán Llullaillaco and Volcán Socompa, the high UV radiation and extreme temperatures make the landscape inhospitable to outside microbes. "This environment is so restrictive, most of those things that are raining down are killed immediately," Schmidt said. "There's a huge environmental filter here that's keeping most of these things from growing."

The next steps for the researchers are laboratory experiments using an incubator that can mimic the extreme temperature fluctuations to better understand how any organism can live in such an unfriendly environment. Studying the microbes and finding out how they can live at such an extreme can help set boundaries for life on Earth, Schmidt said, and tells scientists what life can stand. There's a possibility that some of the extremophiles might utilize completely new forms of metabolism, converting energy in a novel way.

Schmidt also is working with astrobiologists to model what past conditions were like on Mars. With their rocky terrain, thin atmosphere and high radiation, the Atacama volcanoes are some of the most similar places on Earth to the Red Planet.

"If we know, on Earth, what the outer limits for life were, and they know what the paleoclimates on Mars were like, we may have a better idea of what could have lived there," he said.

Other paper authors included Andrew King of Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO Black Mountain in Acton, Australia; Mariá Farías of Laboratorio de Investigaciones Microbiologicas de Lagunas Andinas, Planto Piloto de Procesos Industriales Microbiologicas, CCT, CONICET in Tucuman, Argentina; Preston Sowell of Geomega, an environmental consulting firm in Boulder; and Christian Vitry of Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana in Salta, Argentina.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Ryan C Lynch, Andrew J King, Mariá E Farías, Preston Sowell, Christian Vitry, Steve K Schmidt. The potential for microbial life in the highest elevation (>6000 m.a.s.l.) mineral soils of the Atacama region. Journal of Geophysical Research, 2012; DOI: 10.1029/2012JG001961

Cite This Page:

University of Colorado at Boulder. "Microbes discovered in extreme environment on South American volcanoes." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 June 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120608160119.htm>.
University of Colorado at Boulder. (2012, June 8). Microbes discovered in extreme environment on South American volcanoes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120608160119.htm
University of Colorado at Boulder. "Microbes discovered in extreme environment on South American volcanoes." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120608160119.htm (accessed August 27, 2014).

Share This




More Plants & Animals News

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Firefighters Rescue Puppy Stuck in Tire

Raw: Firefighters Rescue Puppy Stuck in Tire

AP (Aug. 26, 2014) — It took Houston firefighters more than an hour to free a puppy who got its head stuck in a tire. (Aug. 26) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Have You Ever Been 'Sleep Drunk?' 1 in 7 Has

Have You Ever Been 'Sleep Drunk?' 1 in 7 Has

Newsy (Aug. 26, 2014) — A study published in the journal "Neurology" interviewed more than 19,000 people and found 15 percent suffer from being "sleep drunk." Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Great White Shark Spotted Off Massachusetts Coast

Great White Shark Spotted Off Massachusetts Coast

Reuters - US Online Video (Aug. 26, 2014) — A great white shark is spotted off the shore at Duxbury beach in Massachusetts forcing beach goers out of the water. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Elk Wanders Into German Office Building

Raw: Elk Wanders Into German Office Building

AP (Aug. 25, 2014) — A young bull elk wandered inside the office building of a company in Dresden, Germany on Monday. The elk became trapped between a wall and glass windows while rescue workers tried to rescue him safely. (Aug. 25) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

More Coverage


Unique Microbes Found in Extreme Environment

June 9, 2012 — Researchers who were looking for organisms that eke out a living in some of the most inhospitable soils on Earth have found a hardy few. A new DNA analysis of rocky soils in the martian-like ... read more
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

    Technology News



    Save/Print:
    Share:  

    Free Subscriptions


    Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

    Get Social & Mobile


    Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

    Have Feedback?


    Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
    Mobile iPhone Android Web
    Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
    Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
    Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins