A place so barren that NASA uses it as a model for the Martian environment, Chiles Atacama desert gets rain maybe once a decade. In 2003, scientists reported that the driest Atacama soils were sterile.
Not so, reports a team of Arizona scientists. Bleak though it may be, microbial life lurks beneath the arid surface of the Atacamas absolute desert. "We found life, we can culture it, and we can extract and look at its DNA," said Raina Maier, a professor of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The work from her team contradicts last years widely reported study that asserted the "Mars-like soils" of the Atacamas core were the equivalent of the "dry limit of microbial life." Maier said, "We are saying, What is the dry limit of life? We havent reached it yet."
The Arizona researchers will publish their findings as a letter in the Nov. 19 issue of the journal Science. Maiers co-authors include UA researchers Kevin Drees, Julie Neilson, David Henderson and Jay Quade and U.S. Geological Survey paleoecologist Julio Betancourt. The project began not as a search for current life but rather as an attempt to peer into the past and reconstruct the history of the regions plant communities. Betancourt and Quade, a UA professor of geosciences, have been conducting research in the Atacama for the past seven years. Some parts of the Atacama have vegetation, but the absolute desert of the Atacamas core -- an area Betancourt describes as "just dirt and rocks" -- has none.
Mari N. Jensen | EurekAlert!
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