Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Unique microbes found in extreme environment

11.06.2012
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 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 microbiologist with the University of Colorado in Boulder who is one of the finders of the organisms, “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.” The database represents a close-to comprehensive collection of microbes, he added, and researchers worldwide add to it as they publish papers about the organisms.

Life gets little encouragement on the incredibly dry slopes of the tallest volcanoes in the Atacama region, where Lynch’s co-author, University of Colorado microbiologist Steven Schmidt, 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 this high-altitude environment can be twice as intense as in a low-elevation desert. And, while the researchers were on site, temperatures dropped to -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) one night, and spiked to 56° C (133° F) the next day.
How the newfound organisms survive under such circumstances remains a mystery. Although Lynch, 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, the scientists couldn’t find any evidence that the microbes were photosynthetic. Instead, they think the microbes might slowly convert energy by means of chemical reactions that extract energy and carbon from wisps of gases such as carbon monoxide and dimethyl sulfide 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 scientific article about the new findings has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
While normal soil has thousands of microbial species represented 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] – that’s 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 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) above sea level 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,” Schmidt 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, he 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 are dispersed — that is, how they travel from one site to another. There’s evidence that 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 ultraviolet 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, whereby they convert energy in a novel way.

Schmidt is also 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.

Title:
“The potential for microbial life in the highest elevation (>6000 m.a.s.l.) mineral soils of the Atacama region
Authors:
Ryan C Lynch University of Colorado, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Boulder, Colorado, USAAndrew J King Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO Black Mountain, Acton, AustraliaMariá E Farías Laboratorio de Investigaciones Microbiologicas de Lagunas Andinas, Planto Piloto de Procesos Industriales Microbiologicas, CCT, CONICET, Tucuman, ArgentinaPreston Sowell Geomega, Boulder, Colorado, USAChristian Vitry Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana, Salta, ArgentinaSteve K Schmidt University of Colorado, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Boulder, Colorado, USA

Contact information for the authors:

Ryan Lynch, Telephone: (303) 492-6248, Email: rlynch@Colorado.EDU;
Steve Schmidt, Telephone: (303) 492-6248, Email: Steve.Schmidt@Colorado.EDU
AGU Contact:
Kate Ramsayer
+1 (202) 777-7524
kramsayer@agu.org
CU-Boulder Contact:
Jim Scott
+1 (303-492-3114)
Jim.Scott@colorado.edu

Kate Ramsayer | American Geophysical Union
Further information:
http://www.agu.org
http://www.colorado.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Cause for variability in Arctic sea ice clarified
14.05.2019 | Max-Planck-Institut für Meteorologie

nachricht Arctic rivers provide fingerprint of carbon release from thawing permafrost
08.05.2019 | Stockholm University

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Self-repairing batteries

UTokyo engineers develop a way to create high-capacity long-life batteries

Engineers at the University of Tokyo continually pioneer new ways to improve battery technology. Professor Atsuo Yamada and his team recently developed a...

Im Focus: Quantum Cloud Computing with Self-Check

With a quantum coprocessor in the cloud, physicists from Innsbruck, Austria, open the door to the simulation of previously unsolvable problems in chemistry, materials research or high-energy physics. The research groups led by Rainer Blatt and Peter Zoller report in the journal Nature how they simulated particle physics phenomena on 20 quantum bits and how the quantum simulator self-verified the result for the first time.

Many scientists are currently working on investigating how quantum advantage can be exploited on hardware already available today. Three years ago, physicists...

Im Focus: Accelerating quantum technologies with materials processing at the atomic scale

'Quantum technologies' utilise the unique phenomena of quantum superposition and entanglement to encode and process information, with potentially profound benefits to a wide range of information technologies from communications to sensing and computing.

However a major challenge in developing these technologies is that the quantum phenomena are very fragile, and only a handful of physical systems have been...

Im Focus: A step towards probabilistic computing

Working group led by physicist Professor Ulrich Nowak at the University of Konstanz, in collaboration with a team of physicists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, demonstrates how skyrmions can be used for the computer concepts of the future

When it comes to performing a calculation destined to arrive at an exact result, humans are hopelessly inferior to the computer. In other areas, humans are...

Im Focus: Recording embryonic development

Scientists develop a molecular recording tool that enables in vivo lineage tracing of embryonic cells

The beginning of new life starts with a fascinating process: A single cell gives rise to progenitor cells that eventually differentiate into the three germ...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

SEMANTiCS 2019 brings together industry leaders and data scientists in Karlsruhe

29.04.2019 | Event News

Revered mathematicians and computer scientists converge with 200 young researchers in Heidelberg!

17.04.2019 | Event News

First dust conference in the Central Asian part of the earth’s dust belt

15.04.2019 | Event News

 
Latest News

Discovering unusual structures from exception using big data and machine learning techniques

17.05.2019 | Materials Sciences

ALMA discovers aluminum around young star

17.05.2019 | Physics and Astronomy

A new iron-based superconductor stabilized by inter-block charger transfer

17.05.2019 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>