Two metres below the surface of the Atacama Desert there is an 'oasis' of microorganisms. Researchers from the Center of Astrobiology (Spain) and the Catholic University of the North in Chile have found it in hypersaline substrates thanks to SOLID, a detector for signs of life which could be used in environments similar to subsoil on Mars.
Life is bustling under the driest desert on Earth. A Spanish-Chilean team of scientists have found bacteria and archaea (primitive microorganisms) living two metres below the hypersaline substrates in the Atacama Desert in Chile, according to the journal Astrobiology.
"We have named it a 'microbial oasis' because we found microorganisms developing in a habitat that was rich in halite (rock salt) and other highly hygroscopic compounds (anhydrite and perchlorate) that absorb water" explained Victor Parro, researcher from the Center of Astrobiology (INTA-CSIC, Spain) and coordinator of the study.
Furthermore, the substrates where the microbes live favour deliquescence, which means they can attract the limited moisture in the air, condensing it on the surface of the salt crystals. Thin films of water that are a few microns thick are thereby formed.
In this environment, the underground microorganisms grow with everything they need to live: food and water. The species are not very different from others in similar hypersaline environments, but the peculiar thing is that they were discovered at a depth of between 2 and 3 metres, without any oxygen or sunlight.
To carry out this investigation, scientists used an instrument called SOLID (Signs of Life Detector), which was developed by the research team with the aim of using it for future missions on Mars.
The core of SOLID is a biochip called LDChip which includes up to 450 antibodies to identify biological material, such as sugar, DNA and protein. Samples can be taken, incubated and processed automatically and the resu
FECYT - Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology