Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Atacama Desert: A newly discovered biocoenosis of lichens, fungi and algae shapes entire landscapes

09.01.2020

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the oldest and most arid desert on earth. Organisms living in this area have adapted to the extreme conditions over thousands of years. A research team led by Dr Patrick Jung has now discovered and investigated a previously unknown biocoenosis of lichens, fungi, cyanobacteria and algae. It colonises tiny stones, so-called grit and its need for water is satisfied by fog and dew. These organisms also decompose the rock on and in which they live. The scientists believe that this is how they have shaped the landscape of the Atacama Desert. Their study was published in the renowned scientific journal "Gebiology".

Many desert areas have large black spots in the sand. These spots are mineral deposits, so-called desert varnish. In the Atacama Desert, which can be compared to Mars, the team led by Dr Patrick Jung of Technische Universität Kaiserslautern (TUK) also identified such places and initially did not attach any importance to them.


A small grit stone with lichens on it.

Credit: Patrick Jung


The large black spots in the Atacama Desert: The biocoenosis of algae, lichens, cyanobacteria and fungi encloses the little stones and form a kind of net.

Credit: Patrick Jung

"We noticed, however, that the black colour becomes more intense when fog approaches," says the scientist, who is also the first author of the current study. Reason enough to take a closer look at the phenomenon. These black spots are an accumulation of quartz and granite stones with a size of six millimetre, the grit, as it is called in the technical jargon. "They cover the entire Pan de Azúcar National Park," says Jung.

The scientists led by Jung have measured the photosynthesis activity of these spots with a special device which emits light rays. An organism that carries out photosynthesis uses some of this light for this purpose, but not all of it. Based on the difference, it can be determined whether it is photosynthetically active.

"There was actually a reaction there," Jung continues. The team then took a closer look at this rock. "We found a biocoenosis of algae, lichens, cyanobacteria and fungi," he adds. They enclose the little stones, but also form a kind of net with which they grow over several little stones and form a crust. For their study, the team also evaluated data from drone and satellite images.

"Large areas of the national park, covering 360 square metres and beyond, are covered by this biocoenosis in the form of extensive black spots."

In the laboratory in Kaiserslautern, Jung examined the organisms of this biocoenosis in more detail. "Such biological soil crusts can also be found in other regions of the world," explains the biologist. "However, what we are dealing with here is a new type of crust that populates tiny stones. We have therefore named it Grit Crust."

During his laboratory analyses, the biologist also discovered that the organisms do not only settle on the small stones. "They also grow inside," he explains. This is due to the porous rock structure. Since the stones are quite bright, there is also enough light to carry out photosynthesis.

This also offers another advantage, as Jung explains: "The stones are cooler than their environment, which means that the fog tends to condense there." In this way, more moisture is available to the biocoenosis than elsewhere in the Atacama Desert, which is the reason for the special relationship between the organisms and the grit stones.

The scientists have also investigated under which circumstances the organisms perform photosynthesis best. Compared to biological soil crusts from other deserts on earth, the grit crust of the Atacama Desert requires only half as much water, which illustrates the outstanding adaptation to the amount of water brought in by dew and fog and the absence of rain.

The climatic and geological conditions of the Atacama Desert are similar to those of Mars, and the minimal needs for water availability of these organisms could make them candidates for future colonization of Mars, the researchers speculate.

Due to the close bio-geological relationship between the organisms and the grit stones, the researchers believe that the microorganisms are also involved in decomposition processes through their activities. Since this biocoenosis can also be found on larger stones, it might have shaped the landscape of the Atacama Desert over the last millennia.

"This would mean that the smaller stones on which we found the living beings are the result of these processes," summarises Jung. Subsequent studies will have to show to what extent Jung's team is right with this hypothesis.

The study was published in the renowned scientific journal "Gebiology". It also made it onto the cover of the current issue: „Desert breath — How fog promotes a novel type of soil biocoenosis, forming the coastal Atacama Desert’s living skin“
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gbi.12368

The work involved Jung as well as Michael Schermer and Burkhard Büdel of Technische Universität Kaiserslautern, Karen Baumann, Kai-Uwe Eckhardt, Peter Leinweber, Elena Samolov and Ulf Karsten of the University of Rostock, Lukas W. Lehnert of the Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich as well as Sebastian Achilles, Jörg Bendix, Maaike Y. Bader and Luise M. Wraase from the Philipps University of Marburg. The research was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) as part of the EarthShape programme.

Until recently, Dr. Patrick Jung worked in the Department of Plant Ecology and Systematics at Technische Universität Kaiserslautern. In the meantime he is doing research at the University of Applied Sciences Kaiserslautern at the Pirmasens site.

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Dr Patrick Jung
E-mail: patrick_jung90@web.de / patrick.jung@hs-kl.de
Tel.: 0631 3724-7098

Originalpublikation:

Gebiology: „Desert breath — How fog promotes a novel type of soil biocoenosis, forming the coastal Atacama Desert’s living skin“
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gbi.12368

Melanie Löw | Technische Universität Kaiserslautern

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Protein pores packed in polymers make super-efficient filtration membranes

A multidisciplinary team of engineers and scientists has developed a new class of filtration membranes for a variety of applications, from water purification to small-molecule separations to contaminant-removal processes, that are faster to produce and higher performing than current technology. This could reduce energy consumption, operational costs and production time in industrial separations.

Led by Manish Kumar, associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, the research team describes their new...

Im Focus: Integrate Micro Chips for electronic Skin

Researchers from Dresden and Osaka present the first fully integrated flexible electronics made of magnetic sensors and organic circuits which opens the path towards the development of electronic skin.

Human skin is a fascinating and multifunctional organ with unique properties originating from its flexible and compliant nature. It allows for interfacing with...

Im Focus: Dresden researchers discover resistance mechanism in aggressive cancer

Protease blocks guardian function against uncontrolled cell division

Researchers of the Carl Gustav Carus University Hospital Dresden at the National Center for Tumor Diseases Dresden (NCT/UCC), together with an international...

Im Focus: New roles found for Huntington's disease protein

Crucial role in synapse formation could be new avenue toward treatment

A Duke University research team has identified a new function of a gene called huntingtin, a mutation of which underlies the progressive neurodegenerative...

Im Focus: A new look at 'strange metals'

For years, a new synthesis method has been developed at TU Wien (Vienna) to unlock the secrets of "strange metals". Now a breakthrough has been achieved. The results have been published in "Science".

Superconductors allow electrical current to flow without any resistance - but only below a certain critical temperature. Many materials have to be cooled down...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

11th Advanced Battery Power Conference, March 24-25, 2020 in Münster/Germany

16.01.2020 | Event News

Laser Colloquium Hydrogen LKH2: fast and reliable fuel cell manufacturing

15.01.2020 | Event News

„Advanced Battery Power“- Conference, Contributions are welcome!

07.01.2020 | Event News

 
Latest News

Scientists find far higher than expected rate of underwater glacial melting

29.01.2020 | Earth Sciences

What's in your water?

29.01.2020 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Screening sweet peppers for organic farming

29.01.2020 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>